Health Insurer Lobbying, Sopranos Style

It’s been public knowledge for a while now that the health insurance industry secretly funneled money to the US Chamber of Commerce to fund its smear campaign against health care reform in 2009. What we didn’t know, though, was just how much money. Now, thanks to some good investigative reporting by Bloomberg News, we do. And the magic number is… $86.2 million.

Now, this is a pretty staggering figure (indeed, more than four times the high estimate of $20 million previously suggested). The duplicity – on the part of both AHIP (America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry’s leading lobby group) and the US Chamber – of engaging in this secret scheme that mirrors mafia-style money laundering is enough to raise the blood pressure of small business owners who’ve been at the mercy of the insurance companies for decades.

But there is a deeper irony here. The Chamber’s anti-reform ad blitz, attacking the very reforms that would level the playing field for small businesses, wasn’t just bought and paid for by the insurance industry. It was bought and paid for with premium dollars collected from insurance customers – including small business owners. Duplicity may raise the blood pressure, but there’s nothing like having your own money used against you to make your blood boil outright.

Small business owners deserve to know how much of their premium dollars was funneled by each insurance company to its national parent, passed on to AHIP, and then laundered through the US Chamber to fight against the very reforms small businesses support, like an end to unjustified rate hikes and an insurance option that bypasses the insurance companies altogether.

But this story doesn’t end at $86.2 million. According to recent news reports, the nation’s largest health insurance companies still aren’t satisfied: word on the street is that the Big Five (Aetna, CIGNA, Humana, United Health, and WellPoint) are gearing up to launch a new lobbying coalition outside of AHIP. Apparently AHIP’s $86.2 million effort just wasn’t enough.

How much do the Big Five plan to spend? We don’t know. But the next time a subsidiary of one of the Big Five claims it’s raising rates because of the health care law, people should ask if they really mean they’re raising rates to build their war chest with which to roll back the law’s consumer gains.

All this serves as a reminder of exactly what’s at stake as state lawmakers and regulators face decisions about strengthening rate review, requiring insurers to justify unreasonable rate increases, and guaranteeing a basic level of value for small business owners’ premium dollars.

These moves are important to give small businesses – and all insurance customers – a better, fairer deal when it comes to health insurance, but it’s more than that. They are essential if we’re ever going to stop the cycle in which insurance companies raise big bucks by price-gouging their customers, then turn around and use that money to buy airtime, lobby politicians, purchase influence, and sway elections in their favor. And we must stop this cycle.

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