Health Reform: Reality or Talking Points?

Karen Ignagni, president of the industry group America's Health Insurance Plans, and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., on "Face the Nation," Sunday, March 14, 2010.
Last week in a speech about health care reform, President Obama said, "Every year insurance companies deny more people coverage because they've got pre-existing conditions. Every year, they drop more people's coverage when they get sick right when they need it most. Every year they raise premiums higher and higher and higher."

That statement set the tone for a debate on Sunday's "Face the Nation" between Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., and Karen Ignagni, president of America's Health Insurance Plans, a political advocacy and trade association group that represents health insurance companies.

In response to Mr. Obama's statement, Ms. Ignagni said, "We believe that now is the time for health reform," adding that AHIP has been a big player in getting health care reforms off the ground.

Referring to health care bills in the House of Representatives and the Senate, she said, "This is not a situation where we're saying 'no' to health reform. We're saying if it's not affordable, then we're not going to fulfill those objectives that everybody wants to see fulfilled."

Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz didn't buy Ms. Ignangi's answer.

"Unfortunately the American people can pretty clearly see that the insurance industry, led by AHIP, has refused to take 'yes' for an answer," she told "Face the Nation" anchor Bob Schieffer. "We have the elements of reform that they have called for in our legislation; we don't have the elements of reform that they have opposed. Yet they still refuse to support our legislation."

She continued, "The insurance industry, led by AHIP, is carpet bombing dozens of my colleagues with ads distorting their record, lying about what the [health care] bill does, and at the end of the day it's difficult to see the difference between the actions versus their words."

Ms. Ignagni countered that since July 2009, the men and women in the insurance industry who work to fulfill promises made to their policyholders have been unjustly vilified by members of Congress.

"We're seeing a situation where people are focusing on premium increases that are being driven by underlying costs," she said. "And people in Congress don't want to confront the underlying costs because it's hard politically to do so. Focusing on 4% of health care expenditures, which is what we represent, to basically fund a trillion dollar piece of legislation? We are kidding ourselves in terms of whether or not that will work. It won't."

Wasserman Schultz challenged the assertion that the health care legislation before Congress won't work. "Our legislation covers 31 million uninsured Americans," she said. "We'll finally bring costs down and provide security and stability to those that don't have health insurance."

She added, "You have the top five health insurance companies in America, who on average have a 56% increase in their profits while dropping 2.7 million people covered by their insurance plans.

"We have got to make sure that we cover everyone, which we do, that we provide security and stability, particularly to the small businesses," Wasserman Schultz continued. "I was standing on the security line at the airport last week and a small business owner stopped me and said that last year his insurance company raised premiums for his employees by 172% simply because he had one sick employee. Our bill will change that, to bring costs down and make sure that [costs are] manageable.

"The insurance industry essentially wants to maintain the status quo," Wasserman Schultz said. "The status quo for them is record profits, continuing to drop people and denying them coverage."

If there's no health insurance reform, she said, Americans will continue to see insurance companies with rising profits and employers having to choose between letting employees go or paying for their health insurance.

"This is the talking point of the last several weeks," argued Ignagni.

"It's reality," countered Wasserman Schultz, "not a talking point."

"Soaring premiums are being driven by two factors right now if we're talking about the individual market," Ignagni continued. "Underlying health care costs: In 2009, according to government data, health care prices are soaring, number one. Number two, in the individual market where people make a decision whether they're going to be participating or not, a bad economy has led people to drop coverage, pushing up the cost for everyone else."