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Wednesday, 24 February 2010 06:46

House Hearing on Anthem Hikes Shows Ordinary Americans Are Better at Selling Healthcare Reform Than Democrats in Washington

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by Meg White

The House Energy and Commerce's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held a hearing on the widely criticized 39 percent premium increases by California's Anthem Blue Cross Wednesday, one day before President Obama's bipartisan healthcare summit convenes in Washington.

If you were to interpret today's hearing as a preview of tomorrow's summit, you wouldn't be feeling all that positive.

One disappointing moment was found in the opening statement of Rep. Michael Burgess (R-TX), the newly-minted ranking member of the subcommittee. Directly after Chairman Bart Stupak (D-MI) said he looked forward to working with him in his new leadership position, Burgess said, "We'll see if you still feel that way after a few months."

Burgess went on to express deep skepticism that the coming healthcare summit, which he called a "six-hour photo op," would amount to anything. The only one of his Republican colleagues to make much of a mark on the hearing followed suit.

"Here we sit, without a health reform bill because Washington continues to pursue a plan they cannot sell to the American people," said Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA). "The American people simply do not want the Obama plan."

Gingrey had some immediate push back from Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO), who said there was no need to "disparage people's motives."

"I'm offended by some of the things my colleague from Georgia just said... I would ask that Mr. Gingrey and everybody else stop painting people with the same broad brush," DeGette said. "There really is a problem here that we're trying to deal with."

While the lawmakers were snapping at each other like children, the witnesses on the first panel were impassioned advocates of a real solution. Contrary to Gingrey's claims, the American people selected to represent Californians who had their rates jacked up by Anthem Blue Cross in Washington today were very much in support of healthcare reform.

"I'm an American, and I support Obama's healthcare plan," said Lauren Meister, a 49-year old policy holder from West Hollywood.

Another member of the witness panel, Jeremy Arnold, was harsh in his criticism of the government, but advocated forcefully for reform. His comments were later characterized by Rep. Bruce Braley (D-IA) as "a smackdown to all of us about doing what's right."

"This is wrong. It's insane and it must be fixed," Arnold said in his opening statement. "It would be simplistic to think that Anthem's corporate greed is the only problem here... Sharing the blame are indeed hospitals and doctors raising rates far above what is defensible and who, like insurance companies, happily line their pockets while blaming the other side; a legislature that is too beholden by special interests or consumed with partisan rhetoric on both sides of the aisle to take necessary action; and bloated bureaucracy all around. If all parties -- legislators, insurance companies, medical providers -- have any shred of fairness and decency, they will do whatever it takes to support and pass meaningful health reform now."

There were a few positive signs from the perspective of progressives. Burgess admitted that there might be cause for regulations of the insurance industry on a national level.

"We do have regulation in the individual market. It's at the state level now; maybe it needs to be at the national level," he said.

Also, the public option was explored on several occasions, though mostly on the part of invited witnesses. When questioned by Gingrey about her support for the public option, Meister defended it by saying, "I've seen the country support a bailout for the banks and the car companies, and I'd like to see them support a bailout for the American people."

Gingrey responded by saying he didn't vote for the car company bailouts. He then, somewhat inexplicably, blamed the lack of a robust public option (which was included in the committee's write up of healthcare reform, but not in the full House or Senate legislation) on "party line votes."

Arnold called Gingrey out on his party line logic.

"You explicated the reason; it's politics," Arnold told Gingrey. "The party that's not currently in power doesn't want to give the party in power and the president a victory... I would hope that you would encourage all your partisan colleagues... [to not use terms such as] 'socialism' and 'death panels' that you hear from partisan members and partisan media."

In a Q and A with Rep. Betty Sutton (D-OH) over the way Anthem has spent its yearly profits on huge salaries and retreats, Meister emphasized a free market point made by her fellow witness, Julie Henriksen.

"If I raised my rates like they raised our rates, I wouldn't have clients," Meister said.

All three witnesses called for a national committee that would help set insurance rates, rather than relying upon the states. (Nearly half of the states in the union do not have regulatory bodies overseeing insurance premium increases. While California does, even the Republicans present agreed the Golden State had fallen down on the job this time.)

Meister smartly compared the regulation to how "some cities have rent stabilization." And Arnold mentioned that such a panel "would also put pressure on medical providers" to reduce the rates they charge to insurance companies.

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) had no questions for the panel, but took a few moments to praise the witnesses.

"You've helped to separate the political rhetoric... and real life experiences," Eshoo said. "I like the way you keep following up with representatives and telling it like it is."

Of course, lawmakers continued to use their time to question their colleagues' motives and accuse each other of pontificating and lecturing.

"We'll see tomorrow whether we can look for common ground," said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) toward the end of the first panel.

Who knows if they actually will find such a thing at Blair House tomorrow. But I'd say they'd found it in the American people testifying before them today.