Virginia Consumer Healthcare Alliance

Join today and support quality, consumer centered healthcare in Virginia.

From the Alliance

Column: Virginians Deserve Better from Big Health Insurance Companies

This guest column from VCHA Co-Chairs Chris Peace and Roz Dance originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch

Little did anyone know on Jan. 1 that this year would reaffirm Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.”

The year 2020 has brought a wide range of major events including a global pandemic, a red-hot political climate and nationwide civil unrest.

Ten months ago, few people foresaw these circumstances or a virus that’s claimed more than 1 million lives and counting, shut down large swaths of the economy, and caused unemployment to skyrocket and a slide towards recession.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate is considering filling a Supreme Court vacancy as voters head to the polls for presidential and congressional elections.

Among these unprecedented events, one thing again happening this year easily could be predicted: Big insurance companies continue to make massive profits while increasing premiums for hard-working families and businesses, and simultaneously cutting covered services.

These developments are predictable because there is a pattern.

For instance, ConsumerAffairs in 2016 reported the “health insurance industry rakes in billions while blaming Obamacare for losses,” adding that “major insurance companies are enjoying record profits but claim they are losing money under the Affordable Care Act.”

“Profits are booming at health insurance companies,” Axios reported in 2017.

In 2018, the White House Council of Economic Advisers under President Donald Trump compiled a report on the profitability of health insurance companies that concluded “the stock prices of health insurance companies rose by 172 percent from January 2014 to 2018 resulting in improved profitability and outperforming the S&P 500 by 106 percentage points.”

Earlier this year, one national news headline declared: “Top health insurers’ revenues soared to almost $1 trillion in 2019.”

And in August, The New York Times revealed that the “nation’s leading health insurers are experiencing an embarrassment of profits” during a pandemic, noting that “some of the largest companies, including Anthem, Humana and UnitedHealth Group, are reporting second-quarter earnings that are double what they were a year ago.”

These headlines show an ongoing trend. Highly profitable insurance companies have no shame about collecting record profits while reducing coverage as the rest of the economy suffers, and health care providers such as doctors, nursing homes and hospitals face serious financial difficulty while serving patients on the COVID-19 front-lines.

Stat News reported that as of Oct. 1, several major insurers will stop fully paying for virtual visits, which means patients face higher health care costs for “the virtual care that has been heralded as a lifeline at a time when COVID-19 is still killing more than 700 Americans each day.”

UnitedHealthcare and Anthem are ending virtual visit benefits expanded during the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, Anthem “will stop waiving the cost of copays, coinsurance and deductibles for virtual visits not related to COVID-19.”

Let’s be clear: Reducing covered services for virtual care (which helps maintain social distancing and slow the spread of the coronavirus) is a bean-counting decision that prioritizes shareholders over hard-working families and businesses facing higher premiums and deductibles.

Unfortunately, this development isn’t just a national trend. In Virginia, Anthem — which controls about 40% of the health insurance marketplace — is squeezing a Winchester-based health system by threatening to place it out-of-network, a move that negatively would impact thousands of patients. This is wrong, but it is not the first time.

In recent years, Anthem has employed these strong-arm tactics on a Shenandoah Valley health system in 2018 before it was pressured to relent after several months.

While Anthem and other major health insurers slash coverage and make billions during a pandemic, health care heroes and provider organizations that protect the public during COVID-19 are hurting. Hospitals are losing billions in revenue. Nursing homes are hurting mightily, as are doctors.

A national survey from The Physicians Foundation shows that 8% of physicians have closed some 16,000 practices due to COVID-19. Another 4% plan to close in the next 12 months, while 43% of physicians have made staff reductions. Something is wrong with this picture.

People deserve better from the big insurance companies. The Virginia Consumer Healthcare Alliance is a citizen-driven organization working to advance policy reforms to fight for hard-working consumer families and businesses.

This guest column from VCHA Co-Chairs Chris Peace and Roz Dance originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch