Health insurers look to redirect blame over costs

Posted Nov. 01, 2012, at 7:58 p.m.

Health-insurance lobbyists are gearing up to deliver a new message to Congress after the election: When it comes to rising health care costs, they don’t deserve the blame.

No matter who wins the election, rising health care costs will almost certainly continue to be a financial burden. That’s true for individual consumers, who keep spending more on premiums, and for the federal government.

In discussions about that topic, health insurers rarely come across in a positive light. One survey back in the late 1990s had people say whether various industries do “good jobs.” Health insurers came in third to last, with 48 percent of Americans thinking they did a good job. They were rated worse than oil companies but better than tobacco manufacturers.

During the health-care reform debate, insurers often found their premium increases playing foil to President Obama’s call to pass the Affordable Care Act.

Moving into a potential debate over deficit reduction, health insurers want to carve out a different role in Washington. Namely, they don’t want to be the bad guys anymore. To that end, they will soon start arming their lobbyists with data suggesting that other health-care sectors are the ones to blame.

“For a number of years, when people talk about health-care costs, the debate has focused exclusively on premiums,” said Karen Ignagni, president of the Association of Health Insurance Plans (AHIP). “If you’re going to have a debate and discussion about what’s driving health care costs, you have to get under the hood.”

Ignagni said she expects that in any discussion of deficit reduction, “one of the first things we’ll do is turn our heads towards rising health care costs.” It’s possible that Medicare Advantage plans, for example, might end up on the table for reduced reimbursement rates. States could take a second look at how much they pay the health insurers that administer their Medicaid programs.

Ignagni is readying for these types of fights. Her organization plans to use federal data to argue, in statehouses and in Washington, that they are not the ones to blame for the growth in health-care costs.

The goal, Ignagni said, is to dig further into what actually drives up costs. That’s a debate, Ignagni thinks, that the insurers are well positioned to have, and win — with their many charts in hand, of course.

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