Consumer Watchdog Releases Health Insurer 'Lobbying Letters' Provided to Employees in Push to Weaken Senate Health Reform

Friday, November 13, 2009 General News
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United Healthcare Tells Employees to Oppose Public Option and Cost Reforms, Demand Tougher Requirement for Consumers to Buy Private Insurance; CIGNA Urges Similar Employee Action

WASHINGTON, Nov. 12 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The nation's largest health insurance company, United Healthcare, launched a new push this week to get employees to directly lobby U.S. Senators for weaker health reform and higher insurer profits. The new campaign, in an e-mail sent to all employees Nov. 10, offers employees template letters to send from company computers on company time and urges them to write grassroots-style letters to the editor to local newspapers. Consumer Watchdog, which obtained the letters, called on the Senate and newspapers to reject this deceptive corporate-directed campaign.

(See the letters and company instructions for letters to the editor at end of news release or at http://www.ConsumerWatchdog.org/resources/UnitedHealthCare11-12-09.pdf )

The form letters call on the Senate to resist any publicly financed health care option, prevent financial reform of bloated payments to private Medicare Advantage insurance plans and enact tougher penalties on Americans who fail to buy private insurance.

The instructions for writing a local letter to the editor do not suggest that employees identify themselves as UHC employees, only that they "share their unique perspective."

Health insurer Cigna also sent out a companywide e-mail urging employees to contact lawmakers. Its talking points remain behind an internal e-mail barrier.

(See Cigna excerpts below.)

This is United Healthcare's second major push to persuade employees to lobby on behalf of the company. Consumer Watchdog protested the first campaign in September as undue and possibly illegal political pressure on employees. The company's new campaign states more strongly that the lobbying campaign is voluntary. However, the company has access to email sent by employees, and it explicitly tells employees to "share a copy with us" of any letters to the editor. The company is likely tracking employee responses to the internal email request, said Consumer Watchdog.

The message sent to all employees also says: "It is important that we, as members of the health care industry and as individuals, make our voices heard on this important issue. Therefore, we encourage you to actively participate in this debate as both industry voices as well as individuals. Please take action by writing a letter to your elected officials in Washington."

Consumer Watchdog said the request is intimidating.

"No United HealthCare employee would modify the lobbying letter to favor Medicare-for-All, or even a modest public option, knowing that his or her managers may be reading that e-mail," said Judy Dugan, research director of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Consumer Watchdog. "They wouldn't dare to speak against the company position unless they've already got a new job lined up."

Here are selected excerpts from the United HealthCare employee lobbying letters.

Consumer Watchdog said that the statement that "millions of Americans" will lose their current coverage is the opposite of the current bills' specific assurance that anyone may keep their current insurance. In excerpt No. 3, the phrase "an effective personal coverage requirement" refers to insurance company lobbying demands for higher IRS tax penalties than the current bills contain against individuals who do not buy insurance policies under health reform. The letters below also quote a Congressional Budget office statement about reform costs wildly out of context. See the original CBO letter on premium costs to which the quote refers here: http://www.cbo.gov/doc.cfm?index=10618

The House of Representatives health reform bill passed last weekend contains a modest public health insurance option only for individuals and small businesses. The chief Senate bill, from the Finance Committee, does not allow a public option. Both bills seek to control overpayments to Medicare Advantage plans that average 14.5% more than the cost of caring for regular Medicare recipients.

(See more on Medicare Advantage overpayments at http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/patients/articles/?storyId=30336 )

Cigna's message to employees said:

"We believe that while the House bill expands access to health insurance, it does not focus on controlling costs and improving the quality of health care delivered -- both key elements to sustainable reform. Although the industry advocated for provisions that would have improved H.R. 3962, the final legislative language took a form that would not ultimately achieve these goals.??...

"[W]e have a request of you. We ask that you act as emissaries for our company and reach out to your elected officials to educate them on the work you do every day. Tell them about the role you play in bringing high-quality health services to millions of Americans, and that we as a Company share their goals and aspirations for a better, stronger health care system.

"Be assured that the debate will remain contentious and the rhetoric may be extreme at times. We will do all that we can to keep you informed of developments and of the positions for which CIGNA is constructively advocating."

Such employee lobbying comes at the expense of its customers, said Consumer Watchdog.

"Employees will again be spending company time and resources to respond to the lobbying request," said Dugan. "United HealthCare's customers should understand that this employee lobbying is funded by their ever-rising health insurance premiums."

(See Washington Post story at http://voices.washingtonpost.com/health-care-reform/2009/11/health_insurance_companies_urg.html )

(See Consumer Watchdog's previous news release and attached documents on employee lobbying at http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/patients/articles/?storyId=29186 )

(See Los Angeles Times news story at http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/patients/articles/?storyId=29228 )

The previous employee lobbying actions of WellPoint and United HealthCare are still under investigation by the California Attorney General's office, though hampered by the office's inability to keep employee complainant's names confidential, said Consumer Watchdog.

1. "Medicare Advantage is working well for 11 million Medicare recipients -- and more seniors are choosing MA to manage their health care needs every year. As you consider comprehensive health care reform, I urge you to build upon what is currently working in the Medicare system and not limit the ability of seniors to access the program. Please preserve MA funding levels and enrollment opportunities so that seniors who like their current coverage can keep it." 2. "I am concerned that the health care reform bills currently being considered by Congress will not effectively ensure affordable and sustainable health care options for all Americans. Government-run health care will result in millions of Americans not being able to keep their current coverage and will lead to unintended consequences of higher premiums and less choice." 3. "While I am writing to you as an individual, and the opinion I express is my own, I work at UnitedHealth Group, a company that has proposed market reforms that will guarantee quality, affordable and portable coverage for all, regardless of gender, health status, or pre-existing conditions. However, as we have learned from experiences in various states, in order for these market reforms to be successful, they must be accompanied by an effective personal coverage requirement."

SOURCE Consumer Watchdog


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