Insurance Commissioners Tell Health Insurers: Stop Scaring Seniors

Last Updated Sep 25, 2009 7:00 PM EDT

Like every other powerful group in the country, health insurers turn up the lobbying heat when they see their interests compromised. They spent $15.5 million in the first half of 2009 to influence health care reform, according to the National Underwriter. Some would say that the most effective media campaign ever was "Harry and Louise," which torpedoed Hillary Clinton's nationalized healthcare reform in 1992.

But insurers don't usually like their names attached to public brawls, preferring instead to operate behind front organizations like "Health Care America," which took umbrage with Michael Moore's movie "Sicko."

That's why it was quite a surprise when Humana, the fourth largest health insurer in America, came out from behind the veil and contacted its Medicare Advantage health insurance customers to warn them about the evils of President Obama's pending healthcare reform legislation.

Humana's faux pas only served to energize healthcare reform advocates. Some saw it as another outburst like South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson's "You lie!" during Obama's speech to Congress. Montana Democratic Sen. Max Baucus called Humana's mailing "insurance industry scare tactics." And the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which oversees the Medicare program, started an investigation of Humana.

Republicans predictably picked up their baseball bats to defend the health insurers, complaining that the investigation constituted a "gag order" on Humana. But Humana should have known better than to open its mouth in the first place, particularly when it has so many lobbyists and front groups.

Insurance regulators left no doubt which side of the fence they're on. Earlier this week Vice President Joe Biden gave a rousing speech on healthcare at the National Association of Insurance Commissioners conference.

And today they took Humana and other aggressive health insurers out back for a good whupping, warning health insurers to "end practices that alarm seniors about health care reforms" and "calling on Congress for changes to end marketing and sales abuses." The key paragraph: "To the extent that state insurance agents and brokers are participating in these communications ... state regulators will remain vigilant and take appropriate action."

In other words, if seniors complain that insurance agents are lobbying them, these agents could find themselves slapped with fines and sanctions. And the last thing any agent needs is the insurance police looking over his shoulder.

  • Ed Leefeldt

    Ed Leefeldt is an award-winning investigative and business journalist who has worked for Reuters, Bloomberg and Dow Jones, and contributed to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He is also the author of The Woman Who Rode the Wind, a novel about early flight.