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The Republican National Committee plans to spend a million dollars in August on television ads opposing health care reform. One of the key elements of the ad campaign is a study released today by the Lewin Group that finds 119 million Americans would lose the coverage they currently have under the Obama administration’s health care reform proposal. MSNBC’s progressive talk show host Rachel Maddow airs video clips of Senators John Barrasso (R-WY) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Representatives John Boehner (R-OH), Tom Price (R-GA), Paul Ryan (R-WI), and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) all citing the Lewin study as evidence that health care reform is bad for Americans. The Lewin Group is a subsidiary of UnitedHealth Group, a health insurance provider. United Health operates a subsidiary called Ingenix, which in turn operates a consulting firm, the Lewin Group. Maddow notes that Republicans call the Lewin Group “nonpartisan and independent” when in fact it is a branch of a health care insurer. In January 2009, United Health agreed to pay $400 million to the State of New York after being charged with defrauding customers—manipulating data in order to shift medical expenses onto consumers. Former Vermont governor and Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean, himself a doctor, says the issue is “not… about Democrats versus Republicans. This is about the health insurance agency versus the American people.” (Ingenix 7/27/2009; MSNBC 7/28/2009)
Representative Paul Broun (R-GA) holds a “town hall” forum to discuss the Democrats’ health care reform efforts in the North Georgia Technical College auditorium. The audience is primarily white, elderly, and supportive of Broun’s opposition to reform. He begins by displaying three white binders to the audience and declaring: “Folks, this is Obamacare. Let me start this by telling you what I think of this bill and Obamacare.” He then raises the binders over his head and slams them to the ground. “This is a stinking, rotten fish, and they don’t want you to smell it, and they want to shove it down your throat and make you eat it before you smell how rotten and stinky it is,” he says, and promises to vote against the reform bill no matter how it is changed. Broun has made headlines by claiming the health care reform proposal “is gonna kill people” (see July 10, 2009) and comparing President Obama to Adolf Hitler. During the forum, he calls Latin American socialist leaders Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez Obama’s “good buddy” (sic).
Reform an Excuse for Martial Law - Going even farther, Broun claims that a “socialist elite” made up of Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) intends to use a pandemic disease or natural disaster as an excuse to declare martial law. “They’re trying to develop an environment where they can take over,” he says. “We’ve seen that historically.”
Killing Old People - Broun feeds into his elderly audience’s concerns over the debunked claims that the reform proposal would lead to the euthanization or untimely death of American seniors (see July 23, 2009 and July 23, 2009). Obama “is going to let the old folks die, and I don’t like that at all,” one audience member says. Broun agrees, telling the audience that younger citizens would get preferential treatment over elderly patients. “Eventually, mama will be lying in bed until she gets pneumonia and dies,” he says. Citing a study by the Lewin Group, which has not only been debunked but shown to have been propagated by health insurance company UnitedHealth (see July 27, 2009), Broun tells his audience that under the reform bill, 114 million Americans will be forced off their employers’ insurance plans and onto a competing government-run plan because small businesses will not be able to pay for the mandated insurance. The reform proposal will lead to a government-only “single payer” system, he asserts. “They want to take away your insurance and dictate what kind of health care you’re going to get,” he warns. Furthermore, the government will end Medicare and other federal health care programs.
Broun's Alternative: 'Letting the Market Work' - Broun says his Republicans have an alternative: allowing groups of citizens to form private insurer groups and thusly enjoy group rates and other cost reductions. His other ideas include expanding Medicare’s stable of private providers, strictly capping malpractice lawsuits, making health care expenses tax-deductible, and relaxing some state insurers’ restrictions on pre-existing conditions. “We can lower the cost of health care markedly by giving people more options and letting the market work,” he says.
Supportive Crowd - The crowd is almost uniformly made up of Broun supporters, but one woman attempts to ask a question about covering the uninsured while Broun is speaking. Uniformed deputies remove her from the auditorium for a time before allowing her to return. When she asks another question during the question-and-answer period, audience menbers demand that the facilitators “cut her mic.” Broun conducts two sessions, the first containing some 400 participants and the second 150. The auditorium seats 250. (Jilani 8/12/2009; Aued 8/12/2009)
UnitedHealth Group (UHG), the nation’s second largest health insurer, sends a letter to its employees urging them to become involved in protesting health care reform. UHG asks its employees to call its “United for Health Reform Advocacy Hotline” to learn about ways they can engage in protesting health care reform, and specifically the so-called “public option.” Some of their options include getting hotline help in writing “personalized” letters to lawmakers, receiving “talking points” designed to refute the arguments for the public option during town halls meetings and forums, and receiving an events list hosted by the conservative “America’s Independent Party.” (Group 8/13/2009; Beutler 8/19/2009)
Health insurers have mobilized tens of thousands of employees to fight against the Democrats’ health care reform initiative, according to reports by the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal. The insurance industry’s primary motive seems to be financial gain, according to the Times reporters. Many of the nation’s largest insurers, including UnitedHealth, have urged their employees to become involved in protesting health care reform, and provided advocacy “hot line” telephone numbers, printed “talking points,” sample “letters to the editor,” and other materials in almost every Congressional district throughout the nation. And many insurers, including BlueCross Blue Shield, have sponsored anti-reform television ads targeting conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats, many of whom are considered vulnerable to pressure from the industry. The insurance industry is paying for over 900 lobbyists, spending $35 million in the first half of 2009 lobbying Congress and the White House. AFL-CIO spokesman Gerald Shea says: “They have beaten us six ways to Sunday. Any time we want to make a small change to provide cost relief, they find a way to make it more profitable.” (Hamburger and Geiger 8/24/2009; Fuhrmans and Johnson 8/24/2009)
Jamming the 'Town Halls' - Insurers like UnitedHealth and others are sending their employees to “town hall” meetings to protest against reform. The Journal reports, “[T]he industry employees come armed with talking points about the need for bipartisan legislation and the unintended consequences of a government-run health plan to compete with private insurers.” But they are instructed not to become contentious and argumentative, according to a “Town Hall Tips” memo provided by the industry’s chief lobbying organization, America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP—see Before August 6, 2009). The memo warns those attending the meetings to expect criticism, and to stay calm. “It is important not to take the bait,” the memo cautions. AHIP president Karen Ignagni says the town hall meetings are an opportunity “to strongly push back against charges that we have very high profits. It’s very important that our men and women… calmly provide the facts and for members of Congress to hear what these people do every day.” Larry Loew, who works for the insurance administration firm Cornerstone Group, says he attended a recent town hall meeting hosted by Representative Alan Mollohan (D-WV) because “my whole industry is being threatened.” Loew claims he was not coached by AHIP, but admits to preparing for the meeting by gathering talking points from hospital and insurance company Web sites. AHIP spokesman Robert Zirkelbach says about 50,000 employees have been engaged in writing letters and making phone calls to politicians or attending town hall meetings. (Fuhrmans and Johnson 8/24/2009)
'Hallelujah!' - One industry proposal that is gaining traction among some in Congress is the so-called “individual mandate,” which would require all citizens to buy some form of health insurance. That provision would guarantee insurers tens of millions of new customers—many of which would receive government subsidies to help pay the premiums. Robert Laszewski, a former health insurance executive who now heads the consulting firm Health Policy and Strategy Associates, says of the provision, “It’s a bonanza.” The industry’s reaction to early negotiations can, Laszewski says, be summed up in a single word: “Hallelujah!” Linda Blumberg, a health policy analyst at the nonpartisan Urban Institute, says, “The insurers are going to do quite well” with health care reform. “They are going to have this very stable pool, they’re going to have people getting subsidies to help them buy coverage, and… they will be paid the full costs of the benefits that they provide—plus their administrative costs.” Aetna’s chief executive, Ron Williams, says: “We have to get everyone into the insurance market. That is a huge, big deal [and] everyone has coalesced around that.” (Hamburger and Geiger 8/24/2009; Fuhrmans and Johnson 8/24/2009)
Battling the Public Option, - Insurers have fought most strongly against the so-called “public option,” which would create a government-run, non-profit alternative to private health insurance. Some polls are showing public support for the public option has declined, and stock prices for the insurance corporations have tracked upwards. Other insurance industry proposals are gaining ground. The Senate Finance Committee is considering a proposal to lower the proposed mandatory reimbursement rate for insurers to policyholders from 76 percent to 65 percent, and the industry is pressuring Congress to lower the limit that insurers must meet to cover a policyholder’s medical bills, leaving more of the money it gleans from premiums as profits. “These are a bad deal for consumers,” says J. Robert Hunter, a former Texas insurance commissioner who works with the Consumer Federation of America. Insurance companies would reap huge profits by providing less insurance “per premium dollar,” he says. Former Cigna executive Wendell Potter says, “It would be quite a windfall” for the insurance industry. (Hamburger and Geiger 8/24/2009)
Democrats are aghast at the amount of corporate spending they expect to be used against them in the 2010 elections, according to media reports. The US Chamber of Commerce (see September 20, 2010, September 30, 2010, and October 2010) projects that it will spend $75 million this year, over double its spending of $35 million in 2008, to oppose Democrats running for federal and state office. USCoC officials say that spending could go even higher. Other organizations, such as American Crossroads, a right-wing political group headed by former Bush political advisor Karl Rove (see September 20, 2010 and February 21, 2012), are on track to raise and spend tens of millions, again to fund political activities designed to prevent Democrats from being elected. A report circulating among Democratic Congressional leaders says that some $300 million has been raised for the 2010 campaign, all coming from 15 conservative tax-exempt organizations. Sheila Krumholz of the Center for Responsive Politics says: “A commitment of $300 million from just 15 organizations is a huge amount, putting them in record territory for groups on the right or left. With control of Congress hanging in the balance, this kind of spending could have a major impact.” Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), says the amount of corporate funding for Republican political activities is “raising the alarm bell.” The DCCC spent $177 million in all of 2008’s Congressional races. Labor unions and other groups allied with Democrats plan heavy spending of their own, but nothing to compare to conservative corporate funding. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), for example, plans to spend $44 million on election-related spending this year. Political scientist Anthony J. Corrado Jr. says: “What we are seeing is that major businesses and industries are taking advantage of the recent court ruling and favorable political environment. They are already committing substantially more money than they have in any previous election cycles.” Corrado is referring to the controversial Citizens United Supreme Court decision (see January 21, 2010) that has overturned almost a century’s worth of campaign spending limitations. USCoC officials also point to a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that overturned the ban on political issue advertising by corporations and labor unions close to an election (see June 25, 2007). The Los Angeles Times reports that the heavy corporate fundraising for Republican political interests is driven largely by corporate opposition to the Democrats’ focus on health care reform, and a bill passed in July that established stricter government monitoring and regulation of the financial system. Roger Nicholson of the International Coal Group, a mining company, recently wrote to fellow executives urging them to contribute money to defeat the “fiercely anti-coal Democrats” in Washington, specifically targeting a number of Democrats in Kentucky and West Virginia. Five of the largest health insurers, including Aetna, Cigna, and United HealthCare, are banding together to create and fund a new nonprofit group to help influence elections. The group has not yet been formed, but reports say that it will spend some $20 million to defeat Democrats. (Hamburger 8/2/2010)
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