Health

Insurers Spend Big Fighting Regulations, Paying CEOs Huge Salaries

Nowhere are health insurers working harder to thwart reforms that could save consumers billions of dollars than in California. One measure they are especially determined to kill is a bill that would give state regulators the authority to reject rate increases that are excessive or discriminatory.

The California Assembly passed a bill to do just that earlier this month over the intense opposition of insurers, including the state's biggest supposedly nonprofit health plans: Blue Shield of California and Kaiser Permanente.

FDA Orders New, Straightforward Cigarette Warning Labels

New cig warningStarting September, 2012, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will require new, updated health warnings on cigarettes. The 25 year-old, plain-text Surgeon General warnings will be out, replaced with updated, straightforward messages like "WARNING: Tobacco smoke causes fatal lung disease in nonsmokers," "WARNING: Cigarettes are addictive" and "WARNING: Cigarettes cause fatal lung disease." The text will be much larger than the old Surgeon General's warnings, and will be accompanied by powerful pictures, like photos of corpses, diseased lungs and oral cancer. To choose the warnings, FDA reviewed relevant scientific literature, considered over 1,700 public comments and performed a survey of 18,000 citizens. The new warnings will be rotated to keep them fresh. They will cover the top 50 percent of the front and rear panels of cigarette packs, and in cigarette ads, the warnings must occupy at least 20 percent of the upper portion of each ad. The new warnings were authorized by the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act that President Obama signed in 2009.

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Employment-Based Health Insurance Fails America

If you haven't gotten much of a raise lately, it's probably because the extra money that might have been put in your paycheck instead went to your health insurer if you are enrolled in an employer-sponsored plan.

Many Americans haven't seen a pay increase of any kind because their employers can't both increase their wages and continue offering decent health care coverage. It has become an either-or for people like Zeke Zalaski, a factory worker in Bristol, Connecticut, who hasn't had a raise in years.

Video Highlights Casino Workers' Health Plight

Roswell Park Cancer Institute and the public health advocacy group Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights have posted a YouTube video about the plight of casino workers, some of the last employees in the country forced to breathe secondhand cigarette smoke at work. The powerful eight-minute video shows non-smoking casino workers who are ill and dying from prolonged on-the-job exposure to secondhand smoke. An attractive, young non-smoking former casino dealer with an obvious scar on her neck, Sheryl Wilkens, in a hoarse voice describes how she stuck with her job to pay bills while she raised her family. She tearfully tells how in 2006 she developed a lump on her neck, and a subsequent biopsy revealed she had cancer, even though she never smoked. Another worker, a former marathon runner, describes the decline in her health, and how she is now permanently on medication for a number of respiratory diseases caused by her chronic smoke exposure at work. Workers in the multi-billion-dollar gambling industry suffer the highest occupational exposure to secondhand smoke of any workers in the country, and have consistently been left behind as the rest of the country has gone smoke-free as the gambling industry fights to preserve smoking in casinos.

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The Decline of Employer-Based Health Insurance

The global consulting firm McKinsey & Company set off a firestorm when it released a report last week suggesting that 30 percent of U.S. businesses will stop offering health care benefits to their employees after most of the provisions of the Affordable Care Act go into effect in 2014.

The White House was quick to challenge the validity of the report, noting that McKinsey has so far refused to provide any details of the methodology used to reach its conclusion. All McKinsey will say is that its report was based on a survey of 1,300 employers and "other proprietary research."

White House deputy chief of staff Nancy-Ann DeParle, who previously headed the president's office of health care reform, called it an "outlier" and cited other studies predicting that few if any employers would drop coverage because of the Affordable Health Care Act.

Health Insurers Pump Your Premiums Into a Financial Black Hole

Money black holeEver wonder what happens to the premiums you pay for your health insurance?

You might be surprised to learn that more and more of the dollars you pay for coverage are being sucked into a kind of black hole.

It doesn't really disappear, of course. It just doesn't do you a bit of good -- unless, of course, you believe it is to your advantage that it ultimately winds up in the bank accounts of a few investors and insurance company executives, including those who have to power to deny coverage for potentially life-saving care.

Blue Shield of California's Fake Benevolence

Blue Shield of Calif. CEO Bruce BodakenAs the head of communications for two of the country's largest health insurers for almost 20 years, I recognize an orchestrated spin campaign when I see one. And boy, oh boy, did I see an award-winning one this week in San Francisco.

The supposedly nonprofit Blue Shield of California went to extraordinary lengths on Tuesday, June 7 to unveil its "bold move to address the health care affordability crisis" by pledging to limit its annual profit to no more than 2 percent of revenue. And not just going forward, mind you, but all the way back to 2010, when the nonprofit's profits were considerably more than 2 percent -- so much more that Blue Shield of California says it will refund $180 million to its policyholders.

Military's Deep Discounts on Cigarettes Costs Taxpayers Dearly

Smoking in the MilitaryUnder U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) Rule 1330.09, U.S. military bases are supposed to sell tobacco products at no more than 5 percent less than the lowest price in surrounding civilian markets, but army and air force bases across the country are routinely violating this rule. An investigation revealed 15 military bases offer discounts on cartons of cigarettes that range from 10 to 40 percent. Those big discounts on cigarettes lead to big costs for taxpayers. Almost 40 percent of smokers in the military say they starting smoking after joining, and in 2008 alone the Veterans Administration spent over $5 billion treating chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a tobacco-related illness. Smoking also affects troop readiness by decreasing physical fitness, motor coordination, stamina and increasing the amount of time it takes for wounds to heal. The DOD claims service members use tobacco to relieve stress, but Dr. Benjamin Gonzales, who served in the Air Force and Army for 24 years as a trauma doctor, says nicotine addiction causes the stress and using tobacco just reduces withdrawal symptoms. He says the relationship between tobacco use and price is well documented. An investigation showed that, to set prices, military pricing coordinators look at cigarette prices at other military bases instead of basing prices on those at local stores. For those who comply with Rule 1330.09, some of those "local stores" are as much as five hours away, or on an Indian reservations. When these pricing coordinators were asked if they would stop doing that and set prices as defense policy dictates -- by just looking at prices in the local convenience stores, retailers and gas stations -- they wouldn't give a straight answer. 

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Nurses' Open Letter to Wisconsinites –- Carry on!

Guest post by Jean Ross, RN and Co-President for National Nurses United

The fight in Wisconsin continues to be an ongoing an inspiration to the entire nation. As a registered nurse for 37 years, I have been part of a proud tradition of protest as well. My number one priority, as it is for all nurses, is to advocate for my patients. This is a daily struggle we must wage against corporate insurance and hospitals that care more about the bottom line than patient care. As nurses we fight every day for our patients -- by marching on our administrators, disrupting our halls of government, and protesting in the streets.

Health Insurers Have Had Their Chance

Vermont Governor Peter ShumlinOf the many supporters of a single-payer health care system in the United States, some of the most ardent are small business owners who have struggled to continue offering coverage to their workers.

Among them are David Steil, a small business owner and former Republican state legislator in Pennsylvania who earlier this year became president of the advocacy group Health Care 4 All PA.

Another supporter is Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, who last Thursday signed a bill that sets the stage for the country's first single-payer plan. If all goes as Shumlin and the bill's many backers hope, all 620,000 Vermonters will eventually be enrolled in a state-run plan to replace Blue Cross, CIGNA and other private insurers whose business practices have contributed to the number of Vermonters without coverage -- approximately 60,000 and growing.

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