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WellPoint meeting ends abruptly as Bush collapses

May 18, 2010

Shareholders approved a measure to give them input on executive pay at WellPoint Inc. in a contentious annual meeting that ended when board member William “Bucky” Bush collapsed in a chair.

Bush, the brother of President George H.W. Bush and uncle of President George W. Bush, appeared to be OK after the meeting. Dr. Rob Stone, an emergency room physician from Bloomington, said Bush, 71, had passed out.

An ambulance crew arrived at the Hilton Hotel in downtown Indianapolis, where the Indianapolis-based health insurance company was holding its annual shareholder meeting. As they took Bush out on stretcher, he was sitting up and breathing through an oxygen mask. He was taken to Methodist Hospital, where a spokeswoman said he was stable and alert.

When WellPoint Chairman and CEO Angela Braly realized that something was wrong with Bush, she abruptly adjourned the meeting before finishing a tense question-and-answer session with shareholders.

That sparked immediate protest from shareholders waiting to ask questions of Braly.

“I don’t think Angela’s a nurse. Let us speak with the chairman. That’s what she gets paid to do,” said Julia Vaughn, a WellPoint shareholder and health policy staff member at the Citizens Action Coalition of Indiana. Vaughn is one of the organizers of a protest set to take place Tuesday morning outside WellPoint’s headquarters on Monument Circle.

Sam Blair, network director for the Main Street Alliance of small business owners, who had flown to the WellPoint meeting from Seattle, also shouted for Braly to still answer shareholders questions. He said afterward he thought Braly used Bush’s medical emergency as a convenient reason to end the meeting.

Two shareholders brought to the meeting by Blair did make comments to Braly and asked her questions. One, an optometrist from Virginia, said he and his family were denied coverage from Anthem even though his practice is a provider in Anthem’s network.

The other, an attorney from Missouri, complained about a 41-percent increase in premiums for her WellPoint insurance plan this year, the biggest in a string of increases.

“My business simply cannot sustain that kind of constant increase,” said Arlene Zarembka, from Clayton, Mo. “ I do not want to lose my employee. I do not want to be forced out of business.”

President Barack Obama criticized WellPoint earlier this year for large premium increases on its individual customers in California—increases that were mirrored in other states and by other health insurers.

Shareholders did approve a proposal that would allow them to make a non-binding vote every year on the executive pay of WellPoint’s highest-paid executives. That proposal had failed the previous two years, but had received 46 percent and 47 percent of votes, respectively.

Vote totals from this year’s meeting were not available immediately after the meeting. But the proposal, made by the Connecticut Retirement Plans and Trust Funds, was approved.

In a statement opposing the proposal before the meeting, WellPoint’s board of directors said, “The Board continues to believe that the adoption of this proposal is both unnecessary and contrary to our best interests and the best interests of our shareholders because executive compensation is already linked to our performance, shareholders already have avenues for communication with the Board about compensation issues and the proposed advisory vote would not provide the Board with meaningful information.”

Three other shareholder proposals failed to pass. One, introduced by Dr. Stone of Bloomington, would have required WellPoint to conduct a feasibility study about returning the company to not-for-profit status. Another would have required WellPoint to publicly disclose all its lobbying expenses. And the last one would have required WellPoint to change its state of incorporation from Indiana to Delaware.

Vote totals on those proposals were also not available immediately after the meeting.

Braly, in a presentation about the company, said the company does not know how it will be affected by the health reform law Obama signed in March, but that it is actively engaged with his administration in writing the regulations that flesh out the law.

She gave an optimistic outlook for WellPoint’s business.

“Despite a very difficult year in 2009, our company performed well,” Braly said, adding, “Our business should benefit as the economy improves.”

Later Tuesday morning, some of the shareholders who had been at the meeting spoke at a protest outside WellPoint’s corporate headquarters on Monument Circle. The rally was the fourth consecutive organized by advocates of a “Medicare-for-all” program of government-paid health insurance.

About 70 people gathered, at one point chanting, “Hey, hey, ho ho, Angela Braly’s got to go.” Some in the crowd carried signs, reading, “For-profit health insurance companies are hazardous to your health.”

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