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Insurance companies go before Kucinich panel

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In a room filled almost to capacity with K street lobbyists and company lawyers, executives from the nation’s top six insurance providers testified before the Domestic Policy subcommittee during day two of the subcommittee’s hearings. While yesterday committee members heard from victims of insurance companies and industry whistleblowers who shared their disheartening stories of industry abuse, today brought a much different tone.

The witness list included executives from United Healthcare Group, WellPoint, Aetna, Humana, CIGNA and Health Care Service Corporation. They repeatedly expressed their support for health care reform, but when questioned about specific industry practices or guidelines, they tirelessly dodged the issue. Whether the committee members asked about rescission policies or executive salaries, the witnesses seemed reluctant to provide anything beyond vague generalities extolling the virtues of their industry.

However, it seemed that many of the committee members took yesterday’s testimony to heart. Following up on Dr. Linda Peeno’s statement from yesterday that her salary was directly related to how many claims she denied, Representative Cummings asked all the witnesses if there was any reward at their company for doing likewise. Frustrated by the complete denial of such practices by all executives, Rep. Cummings said “Well, I guess there must be those other insurance companies out there doing this.”

Rep. Conyers also dropped in on the hearings, even though he is not a member of the subcommittee. He took a slightly different line of questioning, asking the witnesses if they were aware of a wide variety of insurance-related facts, such as the existence of the organization Healthcare for America NOW. None of the witnesses said they had ever heard of it.

Overall, the hearings posed several tense moments between the Democratic representatives and witnesses. At one point, Rep. Conyers asked Patricia Farrell, the Aetna representative, how much she made per year. She refused to disclose the amount to the committee, offering instead to submit it in written form after the hearing. All of the other witnesses, except the Humana and Health Care Services Corporation executives, refused as well.

While it is unclear exactly how much light today’s hearing shed on the internal practices and operations of the insurance companies, the committee members did request large amounts of additional information from the witnesses, including tapes of internal meetings discussing raising profits and compensation listings for their top executives. Rep. Kucinich closed the hearing by noting that this is just the beginning of an ongoing process to learn exactly how the insurance companies operate and how they can be reformed to better served the American people.

About the Author: Maria Tchijov is an online organizer & new media specialist in healthcare on SEIU’s New Media team. SEIU is the nation’s largest union of health care workers, with over half of the union’s 2.1 million members working in the field, including 110,000 nurses and 40,000 doctors.

This article originally appeared in the SEIU blog on September 17, 2009. Reprinted with permission by the author.

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