WellPoint testimony drops green flag on health reform restart

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If the health reform debate were an IndyCar race, then the next two days should have all the excitement of a late-race restart.

President Obama will try to reaccelerate his push for health reform, and zip around Republican opposition that appeared insurmountable after the Jan. 19  election of Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown to the U.S. Senate scuttled the Democrats' supermajority.

In the middle of this action will be, of course, Indianapolis-based health insurer WellPoint Inc.

WellPoint CEO Angela Braly faces the klieg lights Wednesday when a congressional committee grills her about the company’s startlingly high premium increases for individual customers from California to Indiana to Maine.

WellPoint has single-handedly “breathed new life into the ashes of the health reform debate,” wrote blogger Matthew Holt, by raising rates as much as 39 percent in California and as much as 34 percent in Indiana.

In response, President Obama has proposed a new layer of federal regulation that could shoot down “unreasonable” rate increases. The insurance industry and even state insurance regulators cried foul, saying such a standard could bankrupt some insurance plans or force companies to stop offering individual insurance in some states.

But when even Hoosier conservatives who happen to be self-employed privately express outrage about WellPoint’s rate increases, Obama knows he’s got an issue that can give health reform another shove.

Democratic lawmakers in Indiana recognize that. Speaker of the House Pat Bauer, D-South Bend, and Insurance Committee Chairman Craig Fry, D-Mishawaka, sent a letter Friday to Congress asking it to investigate WellPoint’s rate hikes in Indiana.

“It is especially alarming that the largest rate increases affect the people that need the health care the most—aging customers and those already battling illness,” they wrote.

Republicans have denounced Obama’s 11-page reform proposal, which would make minor—but politically significant—changes to the bill passed by the U.S. Senate on Dec. 24. Obama will try to paint them as hopeless obstructionists at a health care summit on Thursday.

But the real issue is whether Obama can convince Democrats to back a health reform bill one more time when public approval has eroded. The bill has 43-percent public approval, according to a poll this week by the liberal Kaiser Family Foundation.

Obama promised to push his bill through the Senate using the budget reconciliation process that requires only 51 yes votes.

But the math in the House of Representatives is difficult. A health care bill passed in November by a vote of 220 to 215. But four of the yes votes are no longer there, due to one retirement, one resignation, the death of Pennsylvania Democrat John Murtha and the promise of the lone Republican who voted yes not to do so again.

“I’m trying to be optimistic. But I think that everything depends on whether the White House decides to twist arms,” wrote blogger Maggie Mahar, in thehealthcareblog.com. “The president will have to persuade House liberals that this is a good first step—and that we can worry about improving the plan over the next three years.”


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