People Get Ready
“People get ready, there’s a train a’comin’, Don’t need no ticket, you just get on board.” – Curtis Mayfield
“If not now, If not now, tell me when?” – Carrie Newcomer
….The closing songs sung by Carrie Newcomer at the Affordable Healthcare For All Rally on Monument Circle, across from WellPoint’s headquarters, May 20, 2009
Jim Mitchiner from PNHP Michigan arranged for me to speak to the House of Delegates at the annual meeting of the Michigan State Medical Society this April. There I met David Share, a physician working for Blue Cross of Michigan, which is still an independent non-profit insurance company like all the Blues were less than 20 years ago. They can’t turn down anyone with a pre-existing condition. Their board is made up of consumers and providers whose average annual compensation is under $50 thousand a year, compared with over $300 thousand per year on the WellPoint board. They support 42 free clinics throughout the state. It’s what the Blue Cross brand used to stand for. The idea of calling for WellPoint to re-mutualize was born.
Think globally and act locally. Some years ago I realized that we could do both by taking our message to one of the state’s largest employers, WellPoint based in Indianapolis. Starting as a non-profit state-based Blue Cross program like all the others, Blue Cross of Indiana de-mutualized in the 90’s. It went from non-profit to for-profit, raised a ton of money with a Wall Street stock offering, and started a rampage of mergers and acquisitions. In 2003 they merged with WellPoint, better known as Blue Cross of California, and became the largest health insurer in the country. For closing that deal, CEO Larry Glascock got a $42.5 million bonus. The HQ remained in Indiana, but WellPoint stayed as the name of the new company.
My wife Karen and I bought 5 shares (WLP, currently about $45 a share) a few years ago just so we could go to the annual meeting. Other members of our PNHP affiliate Hoosiers for a Commonsense Health Plan had stock as well, and a tradition was born. We have annually harangued them about recission, Medicare Advantage, Ingenex, and many other scandals – they are an easy target.
We needed something new this year in order to keep their attention and that of the media. I wrote an Op-Ed for the Indianapolis Star published 5 days before the meeting/rally with my critique of the company, including my dismay that our shareholder dollars were being spent trying to influence the healthcare reform debate. I noted “Last month the Sacramento Bee reported that in California WellPoint was making 3 million computer generated phone calls a week to try to influence the debate on reform. BusinessWeek magazine‘s headline called them ‘Robo-Calls.’ In 2007 the company spent $2 million on a publicity campaign to sink Governor Schwarzenneger’s proposal for a state universal care system.”
I concluded with:
“I fear that the for-profit insurance industry in America is the biggest barrier to achieving affordable universal coverage.
“With that in mind, I have a proposal for the board to consider – For the good of the company and the good of the country, I propose that WellPoint re-mutualize. That WellPoint return to its not-for-profit Blue Cross roots and spin back off all the state Blues that it acquired over the last 15 years.
“Give up this grand effort to become a behemoth astraddle the insurance market – you have only become a dinosaur.”
Having that published in the state’s largest newspaper, the stage was set for May 20. At 8 AM five of us were seated in the meeting room, and when the time came, I read my statement. Other members of the group shared their concerns, most notably that Susan Bayh’s position on the board, with her husband Evan in the Senate as it considers healthcare legislation, has the appearance of a huge conflict of interest. No one outside of our group spoke, except, of course, for the talking heads of the CEO and Chairman of the Board.
At 11 AM, under a clear blue sky in the center of town, Monument Circle, we opened our rally with folk singer Carrie Newcomer. We had 150 people decked out with signs and our blue Medicare For All T-shirts. My comments focused on the for-profit insurance gang being the biggest threat to meaningful reform. We closed with more music, and then 75 of us marched to Senator Bayh’s office a block away. The march made for particularly good TV footage. Thirty of us were able to get into his office and spent a surprisingly good hour with his chief of staff, as the Senator was in DC.
Should WellPoint return to non-profit status and is that part of our PNHP mission and message? In Indiana it’s an effective way to put our local insurance behemoth on the spot, and to get the media to spread our message that the insurance giants are the real enemy of healthcare reform. For those of you in Minnesota (United Health), Kentucky (Humana), Connecticut (Cigna and Aetna), California (HealthNet), Maryland (Coventry), or wherever, the strategy will be different. Confronting the local face of the for-profit health insurance industry has been a successful approach to raising awareness in our state, motivating our supporters, and putting the insurance gang on the defensive.
We’ll be back at WellPoint again next year. We’re all looking forward to it.
Rob Stone MD