Written by Donna Smith
If for one moment anyone has the notion that for-profit health insurance companies are in the business of guarding the health (or wealth) of policyholders, that notion ought to be quickly dismissed in favor of the truth. For-profit health insurance giants guard profits.
I arrived outside the WellPoint annual shareholders meeting in a hotel in Indianapolis yesterday to be greeted by more guards (and some armed) than I have seen surrounding President Obama at times. Apparently just the prospect of having some of the legal shareholders question the business practices and ethics of the WellPoint board and CEO Angela Braly was very scary for the company and its elite leaders.
Some of the shareholders have in recent years put forward a resolution supporting WellPoint’s return to its non-profit roots. After last year’s meeting, the resolution earned 9.6 percent or 30,000,000 shareholder votes. The current leadership doesn’t like that nor do they like the efforts of the shareholders who keep challenging them.
One shareholder asked Ms. Braly at yesterday’s tightly controlled and guarded meeting, as a sort of speakers’ “shot clock” counted down her speaking time, “Tell me, Ms. Braly, could you please explain what you do that warrants a salary ($13.5 million annually) that is more than 375 public school teachers in Indiana earn?” Braly’s answer was a classic. No shot-clock running for the CEO as she explained that the board sets her compensation and it has to be competitive with the other comparable giants in the insurance industry. It is a breathtaking demonstration of greed and hubris.
I wondered how we have allowed this country to amble onward to the point where 1,275 Americans who carry health insurance go bankrupt every single day (if the courts stayed open seven days a week) while an insurance company CEO like Angela Braly pockets $140,000 for her day’s salary. Every day.
That’s quite a lot of money that doesn’t go to healthcare. That’s quite a lot of money for one person to earn in one day. That may be why such scary guards are needed outside WellPoint shareholder meetings – they wouldn’t want CEO Braly to have to mix it up with any of the policyholders or others who might question too directly what value the for-profit health insurance industry adds to the U.S. healthcare system. I also wondered how much money those guards cost. And the shot clocks to keep pesky questions to a minimum? And how about the pro-Angela and pro-profit softball questions planted in the room?
WellPoint, like the other major insurance giants, can claim the best profits ever this year. Times are good at the top. Things are not so good for millions of Americans who want for decent healthcare within a system that provides a progressively financed, single standard of high quality care. Medicare for all would be nice. The American Health Security Act of 2011, S915/HR1200 as offered by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT, and Rep. Jim McDermott, D-WA, provides a model for moving forward. Public financing (yes, a single payer system) coupled with public and private delivery (not a single provider). No insurance giants paying huge board compensations and CEO salaries. No armed guards protecting the profit.
Outside the City Market in Indianapolis, in the rain and with no need for guards, the advocates of healthcare sanity gathered – and I was thrilled to be among the Hoosiers for a Commonsense Health Plan. We affirmed our commitment to the work ahead and to one another. We sang. We are shareholders in a society that values more than profit – we value behaving justly and humanely, and we’d like a healthcare system that reflects that.
Forgive my repetition of the theme, but health insurance is not healthcare. Health insurance is a financial product. Health insurance is a financial product sold to protect health and wealth which may well do neither. Health insurance is a defective financial product for millions of people who made what we felt were responsible decisions about protecting ourselves and our families from financial or health disaster with health insurance products that have loopholes and flaws big enough to leave thousands dead every year and hundreds of thousands bankrupt.
I will never have the salary or earnings of insurance CEOs like WellPoint’s Angela Braly. That’s OK by me because I’ll also, I hope, never need guards to keep those I have harmed and those I would harm from questioning me about why. But, my life and the lives of my loved ones, my neighbors and my friends are surely as valuable in terms of access to healthcare in America in 2011. The day will come.
Donna Smith, American SiCKO
About the author
Donna Smith is a community organizer for the California Nurses Association and National Co-Chair for the Progressive Democrats of America Healthcare Not Warfare campaign.