Democrats Chide Insurer For Planned Rate Hikes

Officials from Anthem Blue Cross of California explained the company's decision to increase health care premiums to a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee. The hearing takes place a day before President Obama hosts a bipartisan summit aimed at reviving the long-stalled health care bills.

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Today in Congress, the spotlight fell on big rate hikes in health care premiums. A House panel grilled the top executive from the parent firm of Californias Anthem Blue Cross. The company has scheduled increases as high as 39 percent for its individual policyholders. The grilling comes the day before congressional Republicans and Democrats join President Obama for his much anticipated health care summit. And Democrats called the Anthem increases a powerful reason to enact their stalled health care overhaul.

NPRs David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA: With Toyotas top executive testifying today elsewhere on Capitol Hill, you might think it was bad timing for House Democrats to hold a simultaneous hearing on Anthem Blue Crosss double-digit rate hikes. But that did not seem to bother Bart Stupak, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee's Oversight and Investigations panel.

Representative BART STUPAK (Democrat, Michigan): This hearing could not come at a better time. It provides a frightful reminder that unless Congress and the administration acts, Americans across the country will continue to experience large premium increases and will be priced out of the market.

WELNA: At the witness table sat three Anthem Blue Cross policyholders who got letters telling them their premiums were going up. Los Angeles self-employed writer Jeremy Arnold said his rates rose 26 percent last year and will go up another 38 percent on May 1st.

Mr. JEREMY ARNOLD (Writer): My premiums are poised to rise to a level that is a whopping 74 percent higher than barely over a year ago. This is outrageous. My benefits have not improved in any way.

WELNA: Interior design consultant Julie Henriksen of Westchester, California, said the health insurance she has for herself and her two boys will go up by 28 percent and cost close to what she pays for her mortgage.

Ms. JULIE HENRIKSEN (Interior Design Consultant): Not to make light of the situation but if I were to send out a letter today in my industry stating that I was raising my hourly consultant rate by almost 30 percent, I would not be working.

WELNA: That rate hike was unapologetically defended though by Angela Braly. She is the president and CEO of WellPoint. Its the parent firm of Anthem Blue Cross. Braly told lawmakers her company is not to blame for rising health care costs.

Ms. ANGELA BRALY (President and CEO, WellPoint): The increases were seeing in California are due to factors that weve been sounding the alarm about for years: the rise in health care costs and healthy people opting out of the system when other issues arise, such as the tough economic times were experiencing today.

WELNA: That came as a bit of a surprise for the lone Republican who questioned Braly, Michael Burgess of Texas.

Representative MICHAEL BURGESS (Republican, Texas): You had to know this was going to be trouble. I mean, a 39 percent rate increase in this climate? You -do you know what weve been doing up here in the last year? You know whats happening down at the White House tomorrow?

Ms. BRALY: Yes, yes.

Rep. BURGESS: You knew this was going to be trouble.

WELNA: And Illinois Democrat Jan Schakowsky reminded Braly that in 2008, 39 WellPoint executives were paid more than a million dollars.

Representative JAN SCHAKOWSKY (Democrat, Illinois): How much money do you make?

Ms. BRALY: My salary is 1.1 million. I was - I received stock compensation with a value of 8.5 million and last year an annual incentive payment of $73,000.

Rep. SCHAKOWSKY: Well, of course, it makes sense that you would need a big rate increase.

WELNA: For Democrats, the hearing was a chance to tout their health care plan as a solution to soaring costs. Here's Californias Henry Waxman.

Representative HENRY WAXMAN (Democrat, California): Weve got to standardize insurance and make sure that people have access to it. Thats what President Obama has been trying to do. Were going to go to a summit tomorrow that the president has called for the Democrats and Republicans. I hope we can work on this in a bipartisan basis. This shouldnt be a Democratic or a Republican issue.

WELNA: Perhaps it shouldnt, but nothing polarizes the two parties than overhauling health care.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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