The Audacity of Greed: How Private Health Insurers Just Blew Their Cover

The health-insurance industry has finally revealed itself for what it is.

Background: The industry hates the idea that’s emerged from the Senate Finance Committee of lowering penalties on younger and healthier people who don’t buy insurance. Relying on an analysis by PricewaterhouseCoopers, insurers say this means new enrollees will be older and less healthy — which will drive up costs. And, says the industry, these costs will be passed on to consumers in the form of higher premiums. Proposed taxes on high-priced “Cadillac” policies will also be passed on to consumers. As a result, premiums will rise faster and higher than the government projects.

It’s an eleventh-hour bombshell.

But the bomb went off under the insurers. The only reason these costs can be passed on to consumers in the form of higher premiums is because there’s not enough competition among private insurers to force them to absorb the costs by becoming more efficient. Get it? Health insurers have just made the best argument yet about why a public insurance option is necessary.

Right now they run their markets and set their prices, and pass on any increased costs directly to consumers. That’s what they’re threatening to do if the legislation attempts to squeeze, even slightly, the colossal profits they plan to make off of thirty million new paying customers.

They want every penny of those profits. They demand every cent. And if the government dares raise their costs a tad higher than they expected when they first signed on to support the bill, they’ll pass those costs on to consumers in the form of higher premiums. They can carry out their threat only because they have unaccountable, untrammeled market power.

But they’ve now hoisted themselves on their own insured petard. They’ve exposed themselves. If they had to compete with a public insurance plan, they couldn’t get away with this threat. They couldn’t pass on the extra costs. They’d have to compete with a public insurance option that forced them to give consumers the best deals possible.

Now’s the time for Senate Finance Committee and the White House to say to the insurance industry: You want to play hardball? Okay. We’ll play it, too. You didn’t want a public insurance option. That was one of your conditions for supporting the bill. You wanted gigantic profits from having thirty million new paying customers and the market to yourself. We agreed because we wanted your support and were afraid of the negative ads and hurricane of opposition you could finance. But you’re even greedier than we imagined. And now you’ve demonstrated that greed to the American people. They don’t want to turn over even more of their hard-earned money to you. So, insurance companies, we’ve got news for you. We’re going to make sure Americans have the freedom to choose a public insurance option that’s cheaper and better, and you’re going to have to work hard to keep them your customers.

About Robert Reich 545 Articles

Robert Reich is the nation's 22nd Secretary of Labor and a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

He has served as labor secretary in the Clinton administration, as an assistant to the solicitor general in the Ford administration and as head of the Federal Trade Commission's policy planning staff during the Carter administration.

He has written eleven books, including The Work of Nations, which has been translated into 22 languages; the best-sellers The Future of Success and Locked in the Cabinet, and his most recent book, Supercapitalism. His articles have appeared in the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine. His weekly commentaries on public radio’s "Marketplace" are heard by nearly five million people.

In 2003, Mr. Reich was awarded the prestigious Vaclev Havel Foundation Prize, by the former Czech president, for his pioneering work in economic and social thought. In 2005, his play, Public Exposure, broke box office records at its world premiere on Cape Cod.

Mr. Reich has been a member of the faculties of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and of Brandeis University. He received his B.A. from Dartmouth College, his M.A. from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and his J.D. from Yale Law School.

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