Anthem Blue Cross is talk of the town..

The plight of millions of Californians who are uninsured was front and center at the annual Insure the Uninsured Project conference held Wednesday in Sacramento, where hundreds of advocates, state officials and health industry professionals gathered to discuss what’s next for federal health reform.

“Timing is everything,” one panelist declared — and indeed that proved to be the case during talk of industry abuses that continue to underscore the need for rate regulation and broader reform. The recent widely publicized move by Anthem Blue Cross to raise rates by up to 39% on individual policies was cited frequently by speakers as evidence that federal health care reform must move forward.

Anthem Blue Cross has been at the center of a whirlwind of criticism from President Obama on down. On Wednesday, the subsidiary of Indiana-based WellPoint continued to attract sustained attacks at the conference by consumer advocates, state legislators and even industry representatives.

Assembly Health Committee Chair Dave Jones (D) announced a hearing for February 23, saying he would demand justification for the hefty rate increase from executives of Anthem Blue Cross and of the industry in general. Jones noted that WellPoint pulled in $2.4 billion in profits last year, and that the 39% increase follows years of double-digit premium increases by the company.

State Senator Mark Leno (D), who touted his bill for a single-payer system, said he would join Jones in backing legislation to consider imposing disclosure rules and rate regulation on health insurance plans. Jones said he also planned to continue his push for legislation to require more transparency from the industry and place caps on out-of-pocket costs for consumers.

Several panelists spoke of the deep divides between Democrats and Republicans, expressing hopes that those divides could be bridged by reason.

An afternoon panel of stakeholders was tasked with discussing what shape federal health reform may take. Some snippets included:

–John Arensmeyer of Small Business Majority said including provisions to make insurance affordable was absolutely necessary for small businesses to be able to hire quickly.
— Pat Johnston, head of the California Association of Health Plans, said cost-containment initiatives both on base health costs, and including efforts by health plans to cut back their average 12% overhead costs, would be “a vast improvement over the status quo.”
— Elizabeth McNeil of the California Medical Association said requiring health reform to offer the same level of benefits that members of Congress have would win over the public.
— Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access, advised conferees to offer support to their representatives in Washington and suggested that, with vocal constituent backing, a comprehensive reform package could pass Congress in March, by Easter break.

Judging from reports by several speakers, the death of health reform is way premature, and the discussion was a reminder of its necessity and urgency, given the severity of the health crisis here in California. The Anthem Blue Cross rate hikes is just a symptom of the situation.

Health Access California promotes quality, affordable health care for all Californians.

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