About a month before health reform passed last week, health insurance giant WellPoint announced record premium rate hikes all over the country, some as high as 39 percent. As an HCAN report detailed, the premium increases largely fed into insurer profits, rather than paying for actual health care costs. Democrats pointed to the hikes as a evidence of the need for reform, with President Obama and Democrats in Congress citing the massive hikes as another reason to pass sweeping legislation.
Today on Fox Business, WellPoint VP Brad Fluegel appeared to talk about the impact of health reform. But instead of a discussion of the legislation and its ramifications for business and customers, the hosts of Fox Business spent a large portion of the interview skewering Fluegel for helping to pass reform through rate hikes. Of course, WellPoint lobbied (directly and through front groups) aggressively against the bill.
The Fox Business hosts pointed to the hikes and whined, “you guys threw it. … [Y]ou had to know this was going to push this legislation over the top.” Fox host Charles Payne argued that WellPoint enjoys plenty of profits and could have held off the hikes “until maybe after the November elections” for Republicans to win enough to stop reform. Stu Varney, another Fox host, was more direct. Varney looked at the WellPoint executive and muttered, “it was a bad public relations move. … [Y]ou are one of the primary reasons why we did get a vote in favor of health reform”:
PAYNE: When I look at all the different operating margins in your industry, looks like WellPoint, you guys are enjoying one of the healthier, I mean you guys doubled year after year from the year before. Is there any regret about this rate hike at this time? I mean if this was a boxing match, I say you guys threw it. I mean you had to know this was going to push this legislation over the top.
FLUEGEL: Well again our premiums are reflecting underlying medical costs. So we’re not the only ones —
PAYNE: But I mean some of your rivals, Aetna, some of these other guys, I think they make net on a bottom line percentage wise less than you. Seems like everyone was willing to suck it up until maybe after the November elections. Do you think it was a strategic mistake?
FLUEGEL: We need those premium increases to remain solvent within those geographies. […]
VARNEY: It was a bad public relations move at a very bad time. Because that brought down demonization on you and all the other private health insurers. And you are the one of primary reasons why we did get a vote in favor of health reform.
Before health reform passed, Fox Business hosts had cautioned WellPoint that hiking rates might energize health reform advocates. In a segment on the hikes in February, Fox Business spent the entire program ignoring how the hikes would impact customers; instead focusing on how it might help Democrats politically.