White House Warns Health Insurers Over Messaging

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The Census Bureau says more than 50 million people were uninsured last year. That's an increase of nearly 4.5 million. Health care reform will, eventually, insure virtually every American. But a battle has broken out between the insurance industry and the White House.

Millions of Americans are about to get their first big taste of health care reform in both benefits -- and costs.

CBS News correspondent Sharyl Attkisson reports starting next week, your insurance company can no longer put dollar limits on essential benefits such as hospital and lab services. Dependent children will be covered to age 26. You'll get preventive care with no deductible or co-pay. But there's a price.

"Of course all of those new benefits have additional costs that will be reflected in the cost of coverage," said Rober Zirkelbach, spokesperson for America's Health Insurance Plans.

Insurers like Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois have already sent letters notifying customers of premium hikes up to 13 percent total. All, they say, because of health care reform.

In response, the Obama administration has issued a remarkably stern warning to insurers: stop blaming premium hikes on health care reform or else.

In a letter, HHS, Health and Human Services accuses the insurance industry of "misinformation and misleading marketing" and warns "there will be zero tolerance." "We will ... keep track of insurers" who make "unjustified rate increases," says the letter, and may exclude them from a large slice of the market in "2014."

But don't the insurance companies have a right to make their own analyses and claims to their customers?

"Absolutely, they have a right to communicate with their customers," replied HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. "We just want to make sure that communication is as accurate as possible."

But accuracy may be in the eye of the beholder. And insurers are firing back, asking how can they be forced to increase benefits, then be prevented from telling customers why costs are on the rise?

"We strongly believe that our policy holders have a right to this information," Zirkelbach said.

The Obama administration insists the impact of health care reform on premiums will be "minimal," and that insurers should have to justify their rate increases with real data.

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    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.