After silence, IU Health and Anthem voice concerns over Chamber’s smoking scandal

Indiana University Health CEO Dan Evans is one of the most anti-smoking health care executives I know.

Just a few months after I started covering health care for IBJ in 2007, Evans told me in an interview that Indiana employees “should snatch the cigarettes out of their co-workers mouths and say, ‘Hey, you’re costing me money!’”

He backed up that sentiment later that same year, when IU Health (then called Clarian) instituted a highly controversial policy that would have withheld $5 per paycheck, or $130 per year, from employees who smoked.

Over howls of protest and bad press, Evans backed down. But he never stopped declaring that curbing bad health behaviors, such as smoking, was really the only way the United States was going to get its health care spending problem under control.

So it was surprising to me that IU Health issued no public comment at all after The New York Times ran a story claiming that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, of which Evans is a board member, was working through affiliates overseas to quash anti-tobacco policies in foreign countries.

A handful of people sent me emails about this, saying it was odd. So finally I asked for an interview with Evans. IU Health spokeswoman Lauren Cislak said his schedule wouldn’t allow for an interview in the next few days, but she did send along this statement:

“We are proud of the many programs we have in place for smoking prevention and cessation, as well as health promotion and screenings for our team members, patients and members of the community.  IU Health has been and will continue to be a leader in Indiana to prevent and curtail the use of tobacco products.

“IU Health is a member of many diverse state and national organizations to support our public policy goals including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Indiana State Chamber of Commerce. We are talking with U.S. Chamber leadership about the facts surrounding recent stories in the NY Times and will strongly encourage the U.S. Chamber to review its international programs to ensure they are consistent with its own stated policy to oppose smoking and promote wellness.”

It was also surprising that Indianapolis-based Anthem Inc., which pays the bills racked up by smoking adults under age 65 (and for some over 65, via its Medicare Advantage plans), also didn’t say anything publicly after The Times’ story, which noted that Anthem Chief Financial Officer Wayne DeVeydt sits on the Chamber’s board.

This led to snarky comments by others, such as a piece on the liberal blog Daily Kos, whose headline read, “Anthem Vice President fights smoking at home, happy to let poor people die from lung cancer in Nepal."

On July 7, a week after its first story on the Chamber’s overseas efforts related to smoking, The Times included a statement from Anthem in a story on CVS Health withdrawing its membership from the Chamber over the “tobacco tiff.”

Interestingly, Anthem’s former head of communications strategy, David Palombi, delivered CVS’ message, which is highly opportunistic given that until just last year, CVS sold cigarettes at all its stores.

“We were surprised to read recent press reports concerning the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s position on tobacco products outside the United States,” Palombi said in a statement for CVS. “CVS Health’s purpose is to help people on their path to better health, and we fundamentally believe tobacco use is in direct conflict with this purpose.”

Anthem declined to make DeVeydt available for comment, but spokeswoman Kristin Binns sent along a statement, touting Anthem’s “longstanding” anti-tobacco programs, such as its partnerships with the American Lung Association and the March of Dimes that encourage pregnant women, youth and other high-risk populations to quit smoking. She also noted that Anthem offers services to both its health plan members and its own employees to help them quit smoking.

"Anthem is dedicated to helping people quit smoking and has led the charge to end tobacco use among millions of Americans.,” Binns wrote, adding, “Anthem has shared its strong, longstanding position with the Chamber and will continue to address our concerns with the Chamber directly.”

What’s odd about this is that large companies these days put out statements, unsolicited by reporters, on all kinds of things. My inbox was flooded after the Supreme Court rulings late last month on Obamacare and same-sex marriage. The same thing happened during the RFRA controversy back in March.

But in this case, it took a week or more for Anthem, IU Health, CVS and Health Care Service Corp., another health insurer with an executive on Chamber's board, to say anything about The Times' reporting on the Chamber. All were restrained in what they said publicly. Also, drug companies Pfizer, Celgene and Emergent Biosolutions have executives on the Chamber's board, as does medical device maker Abbott Laboratories–and I have seen a comment from none of them except Pfizer, which didn't really address the smoking issue at all.

In part, this could be because the Chamber has disputed The Times’ characterization of its efforts overseas.

“The Chamber regularly reaches out to governments around the world to urge them to avoid measures that discriminate against particular companies or industries, undermine their trademarks or brands, or destroy their intellectual property,” the Chamber said in a statement to The New York Times. After CVS withdrew its membership, the Chamber accused the times of spreading “misinformation.”

It’s also worth noting that the board of directors of the Chamber is hardly the kind of board that governs most entities. There are 118 members—so I would be surprised if Chamber chief Thomas Donohue fills each of them in on everything he’s doing.

At the same time, having a board seat may give enough access to make it more effective to address concerns privately rather than in the press.

It also could be that Evans and DeVeydt, while they’re against smoking, may not favor all the public policies that have been proposed to fight it. Evans, for one, emphasizes personal behavior change far more than draconian government regulation.

That said, with Anthem and IU Health so hot to trot their anti-smoking bona fides, it’s surprising their response to this scandal has been so tepid.

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