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Tony St. Michel, Published October 24 2009

Labor takes on the Blues

Over the past several months, North Dakotans have put together many events targeting both Blue Cross Blue Shield and the industry abuses they and their counterparts represent. As a member of the labor movement, we speak out with a unified voice on behalf of the millions of working families who struggle to shoulder the out-of-control health care costs.

Critics say these protesters were off the mark – only choosing to target Blue Cross Blue Shield because of their egregious abuses that make them an easy target. But what could be more relevant to spotlight than insurance companies’ efforts to block real teeth in health insurance reform? While insurance companies should have a voice in the health care debate, their objections have been downright dishonest and misleading.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota is no stranger to its industry’s abuses. Even as the company’s profits rise, North Dakota families are left to pay more out of our own pockets while seeing double-digit increases year after year. In fact, North Dakota’s insurance commissioner found that Blue Cross Blue Shield went so far as to doctor its marketing materials with misleading statements exaggerating the portion of revenue paid out in health care claims.

North Dakotans know the situation is bad, not just for the uninsured but also for those of us who have insurance but are finding it harder to make ends meet. As someone with great health insurance that my union has negotiated with my employer, I know I am one of the lucky ones. However, I also know that my insurance premiums are, on average, $1,100 higher every year due to the uninsured. Not only that, but should I lose my

good-paying job with benefits, I would be unable to pay any medical bills I might incur out-of-pocket due to their soaring costs.

Let’s not forget about denials based on pre-existing conditions. Everyone agrees, as The Forum pointed out in a recent editorial, that insurance companies should not deny coverage on the basis of a pre-existing condition. So why do insurance companies such as Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota continue this unthinkable practice, even going so far as to have previously financially incentivized the denial of care?

A recent article in The Forum on Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota and the bonuses doled out to its execs was right on target. The article reported that the insurance giant pockets 90 cents for every $1 paid in private insurance claims in North Dakota. Worse, premium payers are footing the bill for lavish reward trips to the Caribbean and Hawaii and other extravagant spending on the company’s top employees.

It is wrong-headed to suggest that, because Big Insurance’s profiteering is so flagrant and well-documented, taking action to hold these companies accountable is little more than a cheap shot. Following that counter-intuitive line of reasoning, the more egregious a company’s offense, the less cause consumers and the public have to raise their voices for reform.

Things have got to change at Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota and within the industry across America. And with comprehensive health care reform legislation, they can.

Taking on wealthy and influential corporations is never easy. Big Insurance has millions to buy influence in Congress, but the public has the vote and collective action. Using these tools for the public interest is neither naïve nor easy – it is responsible and effective.

We may not be rewarded with vacations to the Caribbean for our efforts, but if ordinary people don’t stand up in the face of corporate greed and recklessness, who will?

St. Michel is president, United Plains Central Labor Council.