California Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, a subsidiary of health insurance giant WellPoint, announced recently that it would be hiking premiums for customers in the individual market by up to 39 percent. The looming hike unleashed a firestorm of criticism, and provoked two Democratic lawmakers to launch congressional probes into the matter. Even a spokesman for Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) was compelled to feign concern, telling reporters, “If the argument is that the WellPoint hike means we need reform, well, ‘duh.’”
Earlier today on Fox Business, WellPoint VP Brad Fluegel appeared to discuss the hikes. Fox hosts Charles Payne and and Stu Varney lashed out at WellPoint for increasing rates just when “it was safe to get out of the healthcare debate.” The hosts were uninterested with how the increasing rates would affect customers and struggling families in California. Instead, the pair attacked Fluegel for re-energizing advocates for health reform. Payne groaned, asking Fluegel why he didn’t “take Wall Street’s lead” and “wait for this to blow over and maybe a year from now try to hike rates”:
PAYNE: But Brad this is like Jaws 2, just when you thought it was safe to get out of the healthcare debate, you brought everybody back into it. [...] Didn’t someone though, wasn’t there a committee that said listen, let’s take Wall Street’s lead, do the minimum we can, wait for this to blow over and maybe a year from now try to hike rates?
VARNEY: You handed the politicians red meat at a time when healthcare is being discussed. You gave it to them! [...] You couldn’t see this coming? I mean really, you couldn’t see this coming? [...]
VARNEY: You actually did make a net in that quarter in twleve weeks, you made what, $500 million net profit didn’t you? You tell that to a politician and they’re going to say, ‘you made a half billion dollars in twelve weeks and now you put the price up 25%.’
HCAN has responded to the WellPoint rate hike by releasing a report demonstrating how premium increases have been feeding insurer profits, not paying for health care costs. “The report finds that the top five largest for-profit insurance companies increased their profits by $12.2 billion last year while dropping coverage for 2.7 million Americans.“ Pending the investigation and a review from the California Insurance Commissioner, WellPoint has postponed the hikes until May 1, 2010.
At the end of the interview, the Fox hosts chuckled with the WellPoint VP. They apologized for being so harsh and warmly reminded Fluegel that their criticism of insurer profits was only meant to be “warm up” for Rep. Henry Waxman’s (D-CA) investigation. “You did very good,” cooed one of the cohosts.