Saturday, February 20, 2010

Health insurers' outlook uncertain

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Despite a struggling economy, the nation's five largest health-insurance companies increased their profits by a combined 56 percent last year, to $12.2 billion, even though they lost nearly 2 million members.
As Congress considers health-care reforms, those profits have intensified criticism of the industry.

"At a time when the economy's in the toilet, and businesses are struggling, these insurance companies have a banner year — the biggest year on record," said Richard Kirsch, national campaign manager for Health Care for America Now.

The coalition of liberal health-care activist groups released a report this month scolding "Big Insurance" — WellPoint, UnitedHealth, Cigna, Aetna and Humana — for its latest profits and for "relentlessly" raising premiums.

UnitedHealth, Cigna, Aetna and Humana are among the biggest health insurers in Tennessee.

BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, the state's largest health insurer, is still compiling financial results for 2009, said spokeswoman Mary Thompson. For 2008, it had profits of $59.4 million — a 1.7 percent profit margin. That profit, however, was down from $172.8 million in 2007, reflecting investment losses.

BlueCross Chief Executive Vicky Gregg, meanwhile, saw a 40 percent pay increase for 2008, to more than $2.1 million. Thompson said that the pay increase was based on the insurer's strong performance in the previous year.

The message in the report from Health Care for America Now rings true for middle-class consumers who say they struggle to pay rising premiums while insurance CEOs take home millions of dollars a year.

"I do not understand why a company that is making money wants to drive its customers away by charging more and more. It's got to be greed," said Kenny Sipes, 48, of Flaherty, Ky.

Sipes, who works for a small farm-equipment company, said his Anthem premium just went up 29 percent, to about $223 a month.

"I don't blame anyone for making money; unfortunately for most it's all about money," he said. "Some of these corporations have forgotten who got them where they were when the economy was good."

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