As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Will Ferrell Video - Actually Not A Parody

The video I linked earlier with Hollywood celebrities coming out to defend those poor insurance companies has gone viral, with hundreds of thousands of views today. What's a little less-known is that prominent Republicans are basically engaging in a note-for-note remake of that video, leaping to the defense of that industry which has turned in record profits, raising premiums even during the Great Recession and saving money by denying Americans care.

Here's the story so far: yesterday the Department of Health and Human Services launched an investigation into Humana for sending its elderly customers a mailer warning that they would lose benefits under the new health insurance reform plan. Interestingly, Max Baucus, yes that Max Baucus, registered the complaint that triggered the investigation. The whole thing concerns Medicare Advantage payments:

Humana is one of the largest private carriers serving seniors under a program called Medicare Advantage. About one-fourth of the elderly and disabled people covered under Medicare participate in the Advantage program, which offers a choice of private plans that usually deliver added benefits.

Humana has about 1.4 million Medicare Advantage enrollees, and the program accounts for about half the company's revenue, Noland said.

Government experts say the private plans are being paid too much — about 14 percent more than it costs to care for seniors in traditional Medicare. The Baucus plan — and other proposals — would reduce payments to the plans, and the health insurance industry is fighting back.

The Humana mailer focused squarely on the Medicare Advantage program.

Actually the Medicare Advantage plans cost the government about 14% more and deliver less than traditional Medicare, according to the Government Accountability Office. We are subsidizing private industry billions of dollars so they can perform the exact same task as Medicare, and with lower quality.

The mailer that Humana sent to beneficiaries, designed to look like official communication with customers and not naked lobbying documents, wasn't all; a website which generated automatic emails to members of Congress, claiming to be from customers (despite the fact that anyone could generate an email), is also being probed. And of course, this is not the only example of insurance companies filling their customers' heads with misinformation and turning them into citizen lobbyists.

Of course, the industry went into full-on whine mode as a response, with Republican leaders right behind them.

A spokesman for America's Health Insurance Plans, the industry's main lobbying group, issued a statement Tuesday criticizing what he described as the government's "gag order."

"Seniors have a right to know how the current reform proposals will affect the coverage they currently like and rely on," AHIP spokesman Robert Zirkelbach said.

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate's Republican leader, denounced the HHS order as an attempt to squelch free speech.

"We cannot allow government officials to target individuals or companies because they do not like what they have to say," McConnell said.

"Is this what we believe as a Senate -- that this body should debate a trillion-dollar health care bill that affects every American while using the powerful arm of government to shut down speech?" McConnell said.

McConnell noted that Humana, an insurer at the center of the controversy, is based in his home state. The company has been a large contributor to McConnell, donating $112,452 over his career, according to Eric Schultz, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. (emphasis mine)

Shocking that Mitch McConnell would leap to the defense, Will Ferrell-style, of a health insurer based in his state which has feathered his nest to the tune of six figures, no?

There is a difference between free speech issues and what Humana and others are doing, namely violating federal law. Medicare Advantage providers are contracted employees of the federal government, and under the terms of Medicare Advantage, providers have strict limits on what they can communicate to beneficiaries. This lobbying effort would appear to violate those guidelines, and those customers receiving this letter could be excused for believing it to be an official document warning of loss of benefits if they failed to take action.

In short, Medicare Advantage is a wasteful corporate welfare program providing no benefit to individual subscribers and actually worse quality of care to seniors, at a cost of around $150 billion over 10 years to the taxpayer. The government has no imperative to keep such a scheme going, and they certainly shouldn't be paying providers to send misleading letters to their customers so they can keep the gravy train going.

But the real amusement here is watching Republicans like Mitch McConnell read from the Will Ferrell script and crying to "leave health insurance CEOs alone," as if they don't get enough help from the taxpayers to fund their lavish lifestyles.

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