I'm an Anthem customer, and switching

Robert Reich


Kai Ryssdal: The health care story this week hasn't really been health care, as such. Mostly because the overhaul bill is pretty much stuck. Instead, an insurance company out here in California has gotten most of the attention -- Anthem Blue Cross and its amazing rate increase.

As luck would have it -- lucky for us, that is, not necessarily for him -- commentator Robert Reich is an Anthem customer.

ROBERT REICH: I've had the same problems with Anthem that most people have with their health insurers: confusing bills, co-payments and deductibles that never seem to add up. They seem more interested in fighting me than helping me.

But now Anthem Blue Cross is going a step further with the increase in premiums as much as 39 percent. That's 15-times the rate of inflation.

Anthem says it has no choice. The recession has forced so many policyholders to drop coverage because they can't afford it that Anthem has to spread its costs over a much smaller pool. And too many of those remaining policyholders have greater medical needs than the average.

That sounds logical, but it's at odds with the soaring profits of Anthem's corporate parent, WellPoint. Anthem's argument is also questionable given that the firm has been among the most aggressive opponents of the health-care bills passed by the House and Senate. These bills would add tens of millions of Americans to insurance pools, thereby spreading the costs over more people and avoiding the very problem Anthem says is now forcing it to raise its rates so much.

Anthem obviously believes it can raise its rates this much and not lose every one of its remaining customers with average medical needs, which suggests Anthem doesn't face very much competition. Insurers, remember, are exempt from the federal antitrust laws. And WellPoint, Anthem's parent, is the largest insurer in America.

Anthem is a microcosm of our private for-profit health insurance system -- the most expensive in the world, whose costs are rising faster than anywhere in the world, rapidly becoming unaffordable to more and more Americans, and lobbying like mad against reform.

Anthem is also one of the best arguments for reform. What can be done in the meantime? A few days ago, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius urged Anthem to disclose to policyholders how much of their premiums are going to profits, administrative overhead, and advertising instead of covering medical claims.

Well, I know what I'm gonna do. Next chance I get, I'm switching to another insurer. If I can. If that makes any difference.

RYSSDAL: When he's not fighting with his insurance company, Robert Reich is a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley.


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