When Anthem Blue Cross announced its controversial premium increases in California recently, the insurer claimed, "a carrier must be able to receive actuarially sound rates."
So it is remarkable that "progressive" San Francisco State Senator Mark Leno, a single payer health care advocate, recently introduced eleventh hour legislation codifying Anthem Blue Cross's "actuarially sound" defense of premium increases in law.
Advocates like me, who have battled the insurance companies for decades, know "actuarially sound" is code for whatever an insurance actuary says is "actuarially sound," not what a regulator determines is really excessive.
Why would a single payer advocate, who wants to get rid of insurers, now want to give insurers more freedom?
It's as though Leno is saying if he cannot beat the insurance companies with single payer, you might as well join them.
The conundrum is one progressives will have to grapple with: Why not let Rome burn and rebuild it, rather than making it better?
The answer for Senator Leno should be clear. He will have to face constituents who are forced to buy health insurance by 2014 or face tax penalties, and he will have made their health insurance more expensive.
Leno's bill, SB 1163, undercuts a stronger proposal by State Senator Dave Jones, who will likely be the next California insurance commissioner and wants the power to say no to excessive premium increases. Leno's bill is sucking support away from Jones' AB 2578 because Leno is giving legislators an easier way -- join with the insurers.
Progressives cannot afford to walk away from the suffering of the middle class to prove a point or make a case. Yet that's the type of talk I am hearing more and more from progressives as the midterm approaches.
I am a single payer advocate but I also fight for premium regulation. I do it because I know it works and to help people who cannot afford their health insurance.
Twenty two years ago Consumer Watchdog's founder Harvey Rosenfield reined in auto and home insurers' premiums under the very same regulatory tools Senator Jones is trying to apply to health insurers. The Consumer Federation of America says Prop 103 saved motorists $62 billion on their auto insurance. You would think Leno might listen to people who saved insurance policyholders $62 billion if he really cared.
I fight for people like Mary Feller, whose individual Anthem Blue Cross policy was set to spike 39% when she held a press conference with me, Rosenfield and single payer advocates in the Bay area a few months ago. There was hardly a dry eye in the place when Mary talked about her health insurance premiums costing as much as her mortgage. The single payer advocates there also became supporters of premium regulation that day because they knew we had to do something. They knew you cannot let the middle class burn if you want to save it.
"I feel scammed by Anthem Blue Cross of California," Feller said. "Using a corporate shell game and Draconian underwriting rules, they've trapped my family in a plan with costs that are spiraling out of control. It's time to stop these unfair practices!"
The question for Senator Mark Leno is how does he look Mary Feller, who lives in his area, in the eye after his end-of-the-session shenanigans helping Anthem Blue Cross. It should be a cautionary tale for progressives. The view from the ivory tower is no way to take back the nation or the progressive movement. We need to see the struggles of the middle class from the streets.
Jamie Court is president of Consumer Watchdog and author of The Progressive's Guide To Raising Hell: How To Win Grassroots Campaigns, Pass Ballot Box Laws And Get The Change We Voted For.