Go Ahead, Congress, Please Make Our Day

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Go Ahead, Congress, Please Make Our Day

Politico is reporting that Congressional Republicans want to force their colleagues in the House and Senate who vote for a public insurance option as part of health care reform to enroll in that public plan when it becomes available.

I think Democrats ought to call their bluff and pledge to be the first to sign up. If they do, they will have to shove me out of line. I would love to have the option of enrolling in a public plan that offers a decent standard benefit package at a more affordable price. I am sick and tired of knowing that only 80 cents of every dollar I pay in premiums to my private insurer goes to pay doctors and hospitals for care they provide. (This figure is down from 95 cents in 1993 before the industry came to be dominated by a cartel of hugh for-profit insurance companies like the two I used to work for.) I am eager not to have to donate 20 cents of every premium dollar to cover my insurer's sales, marketing and underwriting expenses and to help make the CEO and the big institutional investors and Wall Street hedge fund managers even more obscenely rich than they already are, thanks to the inflated premiums we have to pay.

Here's what Politico reported:

Rep. John Fleming (R-La.), a family physician, kicked off the quixotic bid last week, urging House members to give up their right to participate in the much-revered Federal Employees Health Benefits Program if they support a government-run program as part of the health care reform package.

Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma are pushing the same concept in the Senate, preparing separate amendments that would require members -- and maybe even their staffs -- to sign up for the public option. With Democrats firmly in control of Congress, the idea is not likely to gain traction. Proponents of the public plan say the resolution would do exactly what Republicans have warned against, undermining the private insurance system by moving people into a public plan.

But the effort has caught fire in the right-wing blogosphere and on talk radio, serving as a rallying point for conservatives opposed to one of the top priorities of Democrats... Newt Gingrich's Center for Health Transformation is promoting Fleming's resolution on its website and started an online petition titled "Good Enough for Congress."

After Democrats call their bluff, I would counter with this: Every member of Congress who votes against the public insurance option must enroll in one of the high-deductible plans like the one that CIGNA forced me into a few years ago, against my wishes. (I am a former CIGNA employee, so CIGNA was both my employer and my insurance company.)

Opponents of health care reform raise the specter of the government forcing us out of health care plans that we like. In reality, our employers and insurers are doing this to us already. While employed at CIGNA, I was in a PPO that I liked, until the company decided a few years ago to force all if its employees out of their HMOs and PPOs and Point of Service plans and into what the industry refers to, misleadingly and euphemistically, as "consumer-driven" plans. It was a take-it-or-leave-it deal. If I didn't want to enroll in the high-deductible plan that CIGNA offered, I could join the growing ranks of the uninsured or try to get coverage through the individual market. That wasn't really an option. I was in my 50s and could not find a decent plan that I could afford, because insurers are free to gouge us when we reach a certain age.

In a high-deductible plan, enrollees have to spend a lot more money out of their own pockets before their insurance coverage kicks in than they had to spend in their HMOs and PPOs. These plans are fine for people who are young, healthy, and not accident-prone. and wealthy. It also helps to have a better-than-average income. In other words, a high-deductible plan might be exactly what you're looking for if you don't really need decent insurance now and can afford to shell out thousands of dollars of your own money in the event you get hit by a bus. The rest of us, however, might want to steer clear of this sort of plan -- if we had the choice.

More and more companies are doing what CIGNA did -- forcing their employees out of the plans they like and into plans they don't. Another big insurer, United Healthcare, did the same thing to its employees a few years ago. If it hasn't happened to you yet, just wait. Insurers are eager to send HMOs and PPOs to the ash heap of insurance history, which is where they sent traditional indemnity plans several years ago.

On second thought, it might be good to give members of Congress who vote against a public insurance option the choice of enrolling in one of the limited-benefit plans being promoted these days by insurers -- including the huge for-profit insurance companies that now dominate the industry. The premiums for these plans are a little lower than plans that offer comprehensive coverage, but they often don't cover things most of us have grown to expect. Little things like hospitalization. Such a deal.

Now you see why the insurance industry insists on being able to charge older folks a lot more for coverage than younger folks and why it is insisting on "benefit design flexibility." They want to have the flexibility to "design" and force us into plans that cover less and less and cost us more and more. That, readers, is what your private insurance company has in store for you if Congress fails to pass meaningful health care reform legislation.

By the way, insurers including CIGNA are now also marketing these limited-benefit, high-deductible plans as "voluntary." This means that your employer would allow you to enroll in these type of plans at the workplace but make you pay the entire amount of the premium. That's right, employers in the future will not have to contribute one thin dime toward your coverage. Future, heck, many are already there. A growing number of employers are already "offering" these plans to their employees. CIGNA offers such coverage under the brand name Starbridge, which "enables companies to offer a limited-benefit plan that is affordable and does not require employer contribution." The underwriting guidelines for Starbridge make it available only to employers who have at least 70 percent annual employee turnover and who have fewer than 65 percent female employees. Also, the average age of the workforce has to be 40 or younger. You're right if you think the profit margins on these plans are high. How could they not be? Cha-ching!

I encourage every member of Congress, Republicans as well as Democrats, to do a little research into what Big Insurance has in store for us before voting on legislation this summer or fall.

This is why I left my job and why I am speaking out.

Wendell Potter

Wendell Potter is former Vice President of corporate communications at CIGNA, one of the United States' largest health insurance companies. In June 2009, he testified against the HMO industry in the U.S. Senate as a whistleblower. He is now the Senior Fellow on Health Care for the Center for Media and Democracy in Madison, Wisconsin.

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