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Read what Public Citizen has to say about the biggest blunders and outrageous offenses in the world of public health, published monthly in Health Letter.

The Health Insurance Industry

September 2010

Sidney M. Wolfe, M.D.

Our continuing strong support for a Medicare-for-all, single-payer health care system derives from the fact that as long as the U.S. health insurance industry is driven by profit, it will be impossible to provide health care as a right for everyone.

For-profit health insurance industries are largely, if not completely, absent in all countries that have universal health care.

It is less than surprising to us that, shortly after the passage of President Barack Obama's health insurance legislation, a coalition that had strongly supported the bill — Health Care for America Now (HCAN), representing 1,000 organizations — issued a report strongly criticizing the U.S. health insurance industry for the over-the-top, increased compensation of its CEOs in 2009.

In a report published on Aug. 11, 2010, HCAN had many negative things to say about the industry, which was empowered and enriched by the legislation the organization and Obama had supported.

Excerpts from the report include the following:

  • In 2009, while America's families struggled with skyrocketing health insurance costs and the worst economy since the Great Depression, chief executives of the 10 largest for-profit health insurance companies collected total pay of $228.1 million, up from $85.5 million the year before.
  • Compensation for health-insurance CEOs in 2009 was enough to pay for every resident of Philadelphia, Dallas and Minneapolis combined (3.2 million people) to go to their regular doctor for an office visit.
  • CIGNA CEO Edward Hanway, who retired in December 2009, got his usual excessive pay and stock options that year, but also gave himself a $111 million pension package as a going-away gift. Combined with pay received by his successor, David Cordani, the company parted with $136 million in CEO compensation in 2009. That is enough money to pay for 204,000 infants to receive the recommended series of seven well-baby visits in their first year.
  • The insurance companies are driven by perverse incentives that reward CEOs for imposing devastating rate hikes on families and businesses while denying care to people when they need it most.

It is our view that the public in this country, however, seems to "get it" even more than organizations such HCAN, members of Congress or the president.

An annual Harris poll asks, "Which of these industries do you think are generally honest and trustworthy — so that you normally believe a statement by a company in that industry?" In the most recent survey, in the fall of 2009, only 7 percent of the 2,300 people randomly selected by the poll answered "yes" for trusting the health insurance industry. In other words, only 1 out of 14 people believes the industry to be honest and trustworthy.

What more is there to say? It is time to rid this country of its main obstacle in providing health care for everyone: the health insurance industry.

For more information about the work of Public Citizen and other organizations on this subject, visit www.citizen.org/singlepayer.

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