Correcting Obama’s Facts

Concern was registered the other day about Republicans in 1937 “stirring up ignorance and prejudice and blind fears.” No doubt a dark chapter in American public life. I remember my great-grandparents telling me they were livid about it.

But it seems like some people never learn. Turns out President Obama may not have told the whole story in his effort to stir up fears about insurance companies during last week’s address to Congress.

Scott Harrington, a Wharton professor and scholar at AEI, fills in some of the gaps in today’s Wall Street Journal:

To highlight abusive practices, Mr. Obama referred to an Illinois man who “lost his coverage in the middle of chemotherapy because his insurer found he hadn’t reported gallstones that he didn’t even know about.” The president continued: “They delayed his treatment, and he died because of it.”

Although the president has used this example previously, his conclusion is contradicted by the transcript of a June 16 hearing on industry practices before the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. The deceased’s sister testified that the insurer reinstated her brother’s coverage following intervention by the Illinois Attorney General’s Office. She testified that her brother received a prescribed stem-cell transplant within the desired three- to four-week “window of opportunity” from “one of the most renowned doctors in the whole world on the specific routine,” that the procedure “was extremely successful,” and that “it extended his life nearly three and a half years.”

The president’s second example was a Texas woman “about to get a double mastectomy when her insurance company canceled her policy because she forgot to declare a case of acne.” He said that “By the time she had her insurance reinstated, her breast cancer more than doubled in size.”

The woman’s testimony at the June 16 hearing confirms that her surgery was delayed several months. It also suggests that the dermatologist’s chart may have described her skin condition as precancerous, that the insurer also took issue with an apparent failure to disclose an earlier problem with an irregular heartbeat, and that she knowingly underreported her weight on the application.

These two cases are presumably among the most egregious identified by Congressional staffers’ analysis of 116,000 pages of documents from three large health insurers, which identified a total of about 20,000 rescissions from millions of policies issued by the insurers over a five-year period. Company representatives testified that less than one half of one percent of policies were rescinded (less than 0.1% for one of the companies)….

Later in his speech, the president used Alabama to buttress his call for a government insurer to enhance competition in health insurance. He asserted that 90% of the Alabama health-insurance market is controlled by one insurer, and that high market concentration “makes it easier for insurance companies to treat their customers badly—by cherry-picking the healthiest individuals and trying to drop the sickest; by overcharging small businesses who have no leverage; and by jacking up rates.”

In fact, the Birmingham News reported immediately following the speech that the state’s largest health insurer, the nonprofit Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama, has about a 75% market share. A representative of the company indicated that its “profit” averaged only 0.6% of premiums the past decade, and that its administrative expense ratio is 7% of premiums, the fourth lowest among 39 Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans nationwide.

Similarly, a Dec. 31, 2007, report by the Alabama Department of Insurance indicates that the insurer’s ratio of medical-claim costs to premiums for the year was 92%, with an administrative expense ratio (including claims settlement expenses) of 7.5%. Its net income, including investment income, was equivalent to 2% of premiums in that year.

No doubt there are some terrible examples of insurance company abuse out there, but stirring up prejudice against insurers with half-revealed facts and distorted representations isn’t the way to build an honest case for reform.

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