For a guy running for office, Steve Poizner sure has been close-mouthed.
Not about his opponent Meg Whitman, whom he debates Sunday in the Republican governor’s primary, but about this:
The notorious rate hike of as much as 39%, proposed this spring by Anthem Blue Cross on nearly three-quarters-of-a-million Californians, holders of individual health insurance policies.
The rate hike request has been withdrawn – for now -- but while it was on the table, it showered political gold on President Obama and supporters of health are reform. The outrage about it gave them the "oomph" they needed to get a healthcare overhaul bill to the president’s desk.
It also gave California’s senior senator, Dianne Feinstein, the impetus to introduce a bill giving state insurance commissioners the clout to say yea or nay to rate increases, and to pass that authority on to the secretary of Health and Human Services if the states don’t assume it themselves.
But it left California’s Republican state insurance commissioner pretty much in the hear-no, speak-no, see-no mode.
Not only did Poizner not speak out about the public’s worry over this – and it’s a middle-class concern, which is to say voters’ concern -- but his office didn’t even take on the basic, essentially technical job of figuring out whether this met the state requirement that Anthem spend at least 70% of its premiums on medical claims. Instead, his office essentially punted: It outsourced it to a private company, Axene.
Axene didn’t make any findings as to the moral outrageousness of a company whose profits went up 51% in the same quarter it wanted to raise policy rates. That wasn’t its job. What Axene did find was a whole lot of math errors, which allowed Poizner to play a technicality as a triumph, a "great victory for California consumers."
Poizner is running hard to the right in the gubernatorial primary, so that even if he had been inclined to raise the alarm about pricing Californians out of health insurance, his mouth was essentially duct-taped by his need to get right with the Republican right.
I know that Republicans are all about competition, but California is the biggest insurance market in the country, with competition all over the place. Republicans say that’s not enough; they want competition across state lines, and they say that mandates that require minimum levels of insurance coverage (like for maternity care!) are what keep costs high, not 51% profit increases.
Ba. Lo. Ney. First, without minimum mandates about what coverage insurance policies must offer, that across-state-lines idea could mean a race to the bottom. You might congratulate yourself that you bought an insurance policy from a company in Mississippi that costs you $50 a month – and when you get to the hospital, you open it up and see that your "healthcare coverage" amounts to two aspirin.
Second, Major League Baseball and insurance companies are just about the only businesses in the country that have antitrust protection. Huh? How is that supposed to work? They keep railing that competition is the solution – but companies have antitrust protection? Which is it, dudes? You can’t have it both ways.
In the game of eyeball chicken, Anthem blinked. It’s not imposing those rate increases, at least not for now. Maybe by the time it's ready with new rate increases, the gubernatorial primary may be over – heck, the governor’s may be over – and Poizner could be off the hook. And, if he gets what he hopes for, in the governor’s office.
-- Patt Morrison