Health reform network crumbles without Rooney

December 8, 2008
The state's Dec. 1 takeover of Medical Savings Insurance Co. marks the formal crumbling of J. Patrick Rooney's network of health care reform efforts.

It comes two months after the board of Rooney's advocacy group for the uninsured, the Fairness Foundation Inc., decided to fold.

The late insurance magnate and his daughters had helped fund both organizations in recent years. But after Rooney's death Sept. 15 at age 80, his daughter Therese decided to focus Rooney's money on education improvements instead of on health care reform.

"Dad had many passions," said Therese Rooney, executor of Rooney's estate, which is valued at greater than $1 million. "We can't chase them all. We choose not to chase them all."

Still, people who worked with Rooney on health reform say they are trying to continue his work to promote consumer-driven health reform and help uninsured patients battle hospitals over their bills.

"My main activity prior to and after Pat's death has been to carry on his health care innovations and his vision, by briefing members of Congress and staff," wrote Dan Perrin, a Washington lobbyist for health savings accounts, in an e-mail.

Perrin co-wrote a book with Rooney this year titled, "America's Health Care Crisis Solved," which laid out a market-based vision of health care reform.

"I have met with more than 175 House or Senate offices in the last four months," Perrin wrote. "In every meeting, I have given them a copy of our book."

Indiana Insurance Commissioner Jim Atterholt took control of Medical Savings Insurance after its capital levels fell below state-required thresholds. Atterholt will liquidate the company's assets to meet obligations to its 6,500 policyholders.

Therese Rooney said the family considered lending funds to the company as an investment of the estate's assets, but decided against it.

"Whatever feelings we had, we just felt it was not the right decision," she said. "To be successful in the insurance industry today, you just have to be able to get those discounts."

Much larger insurance companies, such as Indianapolis-based WellPoint Inc. and Minnesota-based UnitedHealth Group, negotiate discounted prices with hospitals and doctors. When those giants recently offered those discounts to individual insurance customers, it caused Medical Savings' profits to vanish.

Messages left for acting Medical Savings President Brian Davis were not returned. Medical Savings sold high-deductible health insurance coupled with health savings accounts.

Pat Rooney pioneered those accounts in the early 1990s while CEO of Golden Rule Insurance Co. in Indianapolis. Golden Rule was purchased by UnitedHealth in 2003 for $500 million.

That same year, Rooney's years-long lobbying effort paid off when Congress approved tax-free status for health savings accounts. That's when large companies started promoting the products in a big way.

"Pat was a victim of his own success," said Atterholt, but added that the rapid growth of health savings accounts ensures a legacy for Rooney. "Pat was the revolutionary of the consumer-driven health insurance product."

Less prominent was Rooney's advocacy for uninsured patients. In 1998, he formed the Fairness Foundation, which used tactics honed by Medical Savings to contest prices charged by hospitals.

The organization's board voted Oct. 3 to disband. Its patient advocates wrapped up their cases Dec. 1, said Bob Hoy, who had worked as a fund-raiser and consultant for the foundation.

Rooney and his family had provided nearly all the foundation's revenue. But Hoy had been helping Rooney sign up new board members who could provide or find new sources of funds.

Rooney's death cut that short. His will left the foundation no money. "Without Pat's energy behind it, the base wasn't there to continue the effort," Hoy said.

But advocating for the uninsured will continue in some form. For example, the foundation started a new effort this year to help Hispanic patients. A group run by a former Medical Savings employee, K.B. Forbes, is continuing that effort now.

But Rooney, in his will, directed his money in a different direction — education — specifically to his M.A. Rooney Foundation, which is named after his father. Rooney also founded Education Choice Charitable Trust, which continues to give privately funded vouchers to low-income children to choose their own school.

"The family is no longer battling in the insurance area," Therese Rooney said. "We've left that behind."

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