A bonanza for the robber barons

By Susanne King
The Berkshire Eagle
Wednesday, Mar 3, 2010

Aetna, Cigna, Humana, United Health, and Wellpoint scored record profits totaling $12.2 billion. In 2008, Ron Williams, CEO of Aetna, received over $24 million in compensation, about $450,000 per week. His weekly compensation would be enough to pay the yearly salary of three family doctors, whose median income in the United States is $159,000 per year.

While middle class families were struggling to pay their escalating health insurance premiums, rising deductibles and co-payments, Wellpoint’s profits increased by 91 percent in 2009, $2.3 billion over the previous year. Not content with this level of profiteering, Wellpoint’s subsidiary, Anthem Blue Cross of California, seeks to raise its premiums for some by an astounding 39 percent this year.

A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association last week reports that physician fees, adjusted for inflation, decreased by 25 percent between 1996 and 2006. This coincided with a decrease of 5.7 percent in the number of hours that doctors worked per week, a reduction that amounts to the equivalent of a loss of 36,000 doctors from the work force, had the hours per physician not changed.The authors’ suggested “the possibility that economic factors such as lower fees and increased market pressure on physicians may have contributed, at least in part, to the recent decrease in physician hours. Further reductions in fees and increased market pressure on physicians may therefore contribute to continued decreases in physician work hours in the future.”

Will President Obama’s health reform proposal, crafted to gain bipartisan support from a Congress that has been lobbied by the Big Five with $16. 8 million last year, actually reform health care? Not a chance, because the proposal preserves a central role for the for-profit insurance industry. This leads to several problems.

First, his plan will give subsidies to people who are unable to afford insurance policies. While more people would have insurance coverage, this is the equivalent of giving billions of taxpayer dollars to the private health insurance industry.

Second, the individual mandate he proposes will force millions of middle class Americans to buy inadequate insurance products, which have rapidly escalating premiums, and high deductibles and co-payments. This will contribute to financial hardship and medical bankruptcy for those who suffer serious illnesses, and actually need to use their insurance.

And, third, at least 23 million people will remain uninsured.

Dr. Quentin Young, speaking for Physicians for a National Health Program, said, “This proposal is an insurance company bonanza, not good, evidence-based reform. The president would do better by abandoning the insurance and drug companies and instead taking up the single-payer approach . . . By building on and improving the already popular Medicare program, we could put our patients’ interests first. Were Obama to do so, he would meet with strong public support, including from the medical community.”

Obama’s proposal supports the health insurance industry to the detriment of the American people. Private health insurance companies have been given our health care dollars in order to pay doctors and hospitals: they are robbing the coffers, with their exorbitant compensation packages for CEOs and profits for their investors. An improved “Medicare for All” would cover everyone, and provide payment for care people need when they are ill: that is the health care reform Americans need and want.

Susanne L. King, M. D., is a Lenox-based practitioner.