No sooner do we try to tease out the profit motives of BlueCross in opposing new rules and oversight, than we find that the stakes are even higher than we think.
State regulators are investigating whether a $950-million dividend Blue Cross of California sent to its Indianapolis-based parent violates an agreement the companies made to limit such payments to keep premiums down and maintain the quality of healthcare benefits, officials said Friday.
Officials said the parent, healthcare giant WellPoint Inc., should have taken no more than $141 million out of California. They called the higher amount excessive, particularly as Blue Cross, which serves more than 7 million state residents, has continued to raise premiums. The state Department of Managed Health Care also is considering expanding its probe to determine whether there are any other potential violations of the three-year agreement, part of a deal to win the agency’s approval for a corporate marriage that created the nation’s largest health benefits provider.
Cindy Ehnes, director of the Department of Managed Health Care, said she was shocked to learn of the $950-million payday for WellPoint, whose total profit last year was $3.1 billion on $57 billion in revenue.
The merger of Wellpoint and Anthem in 2004, creating the nation’s largest health insurer, was controversial, for everything from massive executive payouts, to the question of whether it would truly help patients, not just profits. Then-Insurance Commissioner Garamendi extracted a series of “undertakings,” or conditions that the new insurer would have to agree to, in order for the merger to be deemed in the public interest and approved.
The question is whether California BlueCross ratepayers are paying inflated premiums to finance the business expenses and profits of the parent company, Wellpoint.
Normally, the state doesn’t look at such information. But the Department of Insurance (and the Department of Managed Health Care) used the merger as a leverage point to place some oversight over BlueCross’ behavior. But that authority to keep BlueCross in check has a three-year expiration date.
Let’s see how the regulator use this authority. Let’s make sure that health reform includes additional oversight over insurers that won’t expire.