Recycling a Front Group to Cheat Us Out of Benefits

Wendell Potter – Analyst, Center for Public Integrity;  Former insurance company executive; Author

The special interests seeking to gut those portions of the health reform law that would be of greatest benefit to consumers clearly believe there is no such thing as historical memory in Washington.

Why else would they bring one of their old front groups out of the storage locker, with just a single new word added to its name? A front group designed to persuade Americans that what they might have thought was in their best interests really isn’t after all.

In the late 1990s, health insurers and their most reliable business allies — including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) — set up a front group called the Health Benefits Coalition. Back then, the industry’s target was the Patient’s Bill of Rights, which would have made insurance firms behave in a more consumer-friendly way. Among other things, the bill of rights would have forced insurers to make an external review process available to health plan enrollees who were denied coverage for doctor-ordered treatments. It also would have given enrollees an expanded right to sue their insurers for wrongful denials of coverage.

The Patient’s Bill of Rights was popular with the public, health care providers and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. It attracted bipartisan support in both the House and Senate. The sponsors of the Senate version of the bill, in fact, were none other than Republican John McCain of Arizona and Democrat Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts.

Insurers hated it, of course, but knew they would not be able to kill it without the support of other powerful groups. They set out to persuade the Chamber, the NFIB and other groups with clout in Washington, including the National Association of Manufacturers, to join them in creating a new front group that would be operated out of a big PR firm in Washington, Porter Novelli.

It was an easy sell. The insurers convinced the business groups that they too should be worried about the bill because it could also lead to lawsuits against companies whose workers get their coverage through the workplace. The groups gladly signed on, especially after being told that it wouldn’t cost them much. What the insurers really wanted was the ability to use the names of those other groups on the coalition’s letterhead. Most of the money to carry out the PR and lobbying work of the Health Benefits Coalition would come from a handful of big insurance firms and their trade groups. I know this because I attended many meetings of the coalition as CIGNA’s representative at Porter Novelli’s office.