Health Insurers sending thousands of employees to Town Hall Meetings as Teabaggers

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John Case

Aug 25, 2009, 5:54:49 AM8/25/09


The health-insurance industry is sending thousands of its employees to town-hall meetings and other forums during Congress's August recess to try to counter a tide of criticism directed at the insurers and remain a player -- and not an outsider -- in the debate over the future of the health-care system.

Among the throngs of Americans crowding the sessions across the country, the industry employees come armed with talking points about the need for bipartisan legislation and the unintended consequences of a government-run health plan to compete with private insurers.

But unlike the angry crowds shouting at politicians to keep government out of their health care, the insurance industry supporters have garnered little attention, and that's partly by design.

A "Town Hall Tips" memo written by America's Health Insurance Plans, or AHIP, the industry's chief lobby, warns people attending the meetings to expect harsh criticism directed at health-plan employees. Stay calm and don't yell at members of Congress, the memo advises. "It is important not to take the bait," it cautions.

The town-hall meetings are an opportunity "to strongly push back against charges that we have very high profits," said Karen Ignagni, AHIP's president and chief executive officer. "It's very important that our men and women...calmly provide the facts and for members of Congress to hear what these people do every day."

Lary Loew, who heads Cornerstone Group, a Wheeling, W.Va., concern that administers health-insurance benefits for 600 employers, said he attended a recent town-hall meeting hosted by Rep. Alan Mollohan (D., W.Va.) because "my whole industry is being threatened." He said he was called on to rebut an advocate for national health insurance, who said her disabled daughter wouldn't be able to get health insurance after graduating from college.

Mr. Loew said government-run insurance wouldn't be necessary in part because private companies have agreed to accept all comers despite pre-existing conditions. "Those are reforms we approve of," he recalls telling the audience.

Mr. Loew, who wasn't coached by AHIP, said he prepared for the meeting by gathering information from hospital and insurance-company Web sites.

Under Ms. Ignagni's leadership, AHIP and its 1,300 members have agreed to concessions in the way they do business, including halting the practice of denying coverage to people with pre-existing medical conditions. By positioning itself as constructive rather than obstinate, the industry hopes it will maintain an influential seat at the legislation-drafting table.

"We have to get everyone into the insurance market," said Ron Williams, chief executive of Aetna Inc. "That is a huge, big deal [and] everyone has coalesced around that."

But as President Barack Obama and his congressional allies turn up the rhetoric during the August recess, accusing the industry of profiting at patients' expense, and as town-hall meeting with lawmakers have turned into anti-government shouting matches, that strategy is being tested.

Dan Lucas, a database operations manager for Regence Blue Cross Blue Shield of Oregon, said he got upset when he heard the White House demonize health plans as profit centers, when many, like his employer, are not-for-profit companies. He decided without coaching from AHIP or Regence Blue Cross to take that message to Rep. David Wu's (D., Ore.) town-hall meeting in Portland on Aug 11.

He didn't get picked to ask a question, but while waiting in line, he struck up a conversation with an advocate for nationalized health care, who told him that insurers' profit margins are 35%. Mr. Lucas says he told him it was 2.2%. (That is consistent with nonprofit health plans; the net profit margins of many for-profit insurers fall in the 4% to 6% range.) The other man took notes on the talking points Mr. Lucas had prepared.

"I could tell he was going to do some more research on it," Mr. Lucas said.

All told, AHIP spokesman Robert Zirkelbach says, about 50,000 employees have been engaged in writing letters and making phone calls to politicians or attending town-hall meetings.

Write to Vanessa Fuhrmans at and Avery Johnson at

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