Health

Health Insurers Pump Your Premiums Into a Financial Black Hole

Money black holeEver wonder what happens to the premiums you pay for your health insurance?

You might be surprised to learn that more and more of the dollars you pay for coverage are being sucked into a kind of black hole.

It doesn't really disappear, of course. It just doesn't do you a bit of good -- unless, of course, you believe it is to your advantage that it ultimately winds up in the bank accounts of a few investors and insurance company executives, including those who have to power to deny coverage for potentially life-saving care.

Blue Shield of California's Fake Benevolence

Blue Shield of Calif. CEO Bruce BodakenAs the head of communications for two of the country's largest health insurers for almost 20 years, I recognize an orchestrated spin campaign when I see one. And boy, oh boy, did I see an award-winning one this week in San Francisco.

The supposedly nonprofit Blue Shield of California went to extraordinary lengths on Tuesday, June 7 to unveil its "bold move to address the health care affordability crisis" by pledging to limit its annual profit to no more than 2 percent of revenue. And not just going forward, mind you, but all the way back to 2010, when the nonprofit's profits were considerably more than 2 percent -- so much more that Blue Shield of California says it will refund $180 million to its policyholders.

Military's Deep Discounts on Cigarettes Costs Taxpayers Dearly

Smoking in the MilitaryUnder U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) Rule 1330.09, U.S. military bases are supposed to sell tobacco products at no more than 5 percent less than the lowest price in surrounding civilian markets, but army and air force bases across the country are routinely violating this rule. An investigation revealed 15 military bases offer discounts on cartons of cigarettes that range from 10 to 40 percent. Those big discounts on cigarettes lead to big costs for taxpayers. Almost 40 percent of smokers in the military say they starting smoking after joining, and in 2008 alone the Veterans Administration spent over $5 billion treating chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a tobacco-related illness. Smoking also affects troop readiness by decreasing physical fitness, motor coordination, stamina and increasing the amount of time it takes for wounds to heal. The DOD claims service members use tobacco to relieve stress, but Dr. Benjamin Gonzales, who served in the Air Force and Army for 24 years as a trauma doctor, says nicotine addiction causes the stress and using tobacco just reduces withdrawal symptoms. He says the relationship between tobacco use and price is well documented. An investigation showed that, to set prices, military pricing coordinators look at cigarette prices at other military bases instead of basing prices on those at local stores. For those who comply with Rule 1330.09, some of those "local stores" are as much as five hours away, or on an Indian reservations. When these pricing coordinators were asked if they would stop doing that and set prices as defense policy dictates -- by just looking at prices in the local convenience stores, retailers and gas stations -- they wouldn't give a straight answer. 

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Nurses' Open Letter to Wisconsinites –- Carry on!

Guest post by Jean Ross, RN and Co-President for National Nurses United

The fight in Wisconsin continues to be an ongoing an inspiration to the entire nation. As a registered nurse for 37 years, I have been part of a proud tradition of protest as well. My number one priority, as it is for all nurses, is to advocate for my patients. This is a daily struggle we must wage against corporate insurance and hospitals that care more about the bottom line than patient care. As nurses we fight every day for our patients -- by marching on our administrators, disrupting our halls of government, and protesting in the streets.

Health Insurers Have Had Their Chance

Vermont Governor Peter ShumlinOf the many supporters of a single-payer health care system in the United States, some of the most ardent are small business owners who have struggled to continue offering coverage to their workers.

Among them are David Steil, a small business owner and former Republican state legislator in Pennsylvania who earlier this year became president of the advocacy group Health Care 4 All PA.

Another supporter is Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, who last Thursday signed a bill that sets the stage for the country's first single-payer plan. If all goes as Shumlin and the bill's many backers hope, all 620,000 Vermonters will eventually be enrolled in a state-run plan to replace Blue Cross, CIGNA and other private insurers whose business practices have contributed to the number of Vermonters without coverage -- approximately 60,000 and growing.

Insurers Blame Americans; Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee Ducks Questions

Blue Cross Blue Shield of TNThe reaction of health insurers to the Obama administration's requirement that they start justifying rate increases of 10 percent or more was quick and predictable: "Not fair!"

The PR and lobbying group America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) absolved the industry of any responsibility for constantly rising premiums and pointed the finger of blame at just about everyone else. The real culprits, AHIP president Karen Ignagni insisted, are greedy doctors and hospitals, state legislators who make insurers provide coverage for an overly broad range of illnesses, and, of course, irresponsible American citizens, especially healthy young people who decide not to buy insurance.

The Paper Insurers Cite, But Hope You Won't Read

Hiding the truthI turned 43 a couple of weeks after I joined CIGNA in 1993. One of the birthday gifts from my new colleagues was a framed, three-word quote by E. B. White: "Be obscure clearly."

We laughed and laughed. It was an inside joke -- and a perfect present for an HMO PR guy who more than a few times had to be obscure when responding to media inquiries. Reporters always wanted more information than I dared give them, but I had to give them something. Hence the need to follow White's sage advice.

That quote, by the way, was in Elements of Style, the classic 1959 book on writing that White co-authored with William Strunk, Jr. White was not actually recommending obscure writing. He was just saying that if for some reason you felt you could not tell the whole truth, if there was no choice but to be obscure, at least use the active voice and proper grammar while doing it.

Got Health Insurance? Pray You Won't Get Purged

You might not realize it, but this is National Small Business Week. I'm betting many small business owners aren't aware of it, either. Perhaps that's because most small business owners are far more likely to be worrying about whether they'll be able to offer health insurance to their employees for another year.

Cutting health insurance costsOr is this the year they join the ever-growing list of small businesses that have been "purged" by their insurance carrier?

For several years now, insurance companies have been "purging" small business accounts they no longer consider profitable enough or that their underwriters believe pose too much risk. I became familiar with"purging" (yes, that's the actual word insurance executives use internally) toward the end of my career as an industry PR man.

Dear Mr. President, I Wish I Had Known...

Like many others, I've heard President Obama talk about his mother's insurance problems during her final months in 1995. The memory of his mother having to devote precious time and energy pleading with her insurer to pay her mounting medical bills fueled Obama's determination to focus on passing health care reform.

But I didn't realize until reading a new book about the president's mother that the insurer she was pleading with was CIGNA, the one I used to work for. I wish I had known at the time. In my role as PR man for the company, I might have been able to help.

And the Razzie goes to Norman Lear's EMA for Exposing Kids to Sewage Sludge and Not Coming Clean

For a non-actress surrounded by movie stars, Debbie Levin, President of the Environmental Media Association (EMA) -- an organization founded by Norman Lear -- is putting on quite a performance of her own. Too bad it's more likely to win her a fraud charge than an Oscar, based on her May 6, 2011 letter to her Board provided to the Food Rights Network by a source inside EMA.

Rosario Dawson gardening at a school next to a bag of Kellogg's AmendOver the past month, Levin has been confronted with ample evidence that the group she runs exposed school children (not to mention the Hollywood celebrities that serve on the group's board) to toxic sewage sludge. In 2009, EMA began a partnership with several Los Angeles schools, securing the donation of thousands of dollars in compost and soil amendment products from Kellogg Garden Products for the schools' organic gardens soon thereafter. In a sworn affidavit, former L.A. Unified School District garden advisor, Mud Baron, said that he informed Levin early on and repeatedly that Kellogg uses sewage sludge in many of its products, and sewage sludge is illegal for use in organic gardens.

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