Pelosi Blasts McConnell for Echoing 'Immoral' Health Insurers

By James Rowley and Lorraine Woellert
Bloomberg News
July 31, 2009


July 31 (Bloomberg) -- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ridiculed criticism by Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell of Democrats' health-care plans, saying he's echoing an insurance industry which makes "exorbitant profits" at the expense of Americans' well being.

The speaker said McConnell's comment yesterday that the Democrats' plan "means sticking it to seniors with cuts to Medicare" isn't true.

"It's amazing what people are willing to say," Pelosi said in an interview on Bloomberg Television's "Political Capital with Al Hunt," airing today. "That is the message of insurance industry," which is "feeding the flame of misrepresentations that you hear from Mitch McConnell," she said. The legislation wouldn't cut seniors' benefits, she said, noting that the Democrats' plan has the support of AARP.

McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said the Congressional Budget Office's analysis supported the contention that there will be cutbacks in Medicare spending under the Democrats' legislation.

Pelosi, 69, said she expected the House to vote on health- care legislation by September after blending three "distinctly different" versions of the measure during lawmakers' August congressional recess.

"Now we have the luxury of taking the time to merge them, blend them and then take the vote when we are ready," Pelosi, a California Democrat, said, calling the bills more than "80 percent compatible."

Insurers 'Villains'

Private health insurers are the "villains" of the medical system because of "immoral decision-making" that places the companies "between patients and their doctors," Pelosi said. Insurers will oppose the legislation because "they like their big profits at the expense of the health of the American people."

"The American people have been at their mercy," and the legislation "puts the leverage back in the hands of the patients," she said.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee was putting the finishing touches on its version of the measure today before the House leaves for recess. Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters today that the vote wouldn't occur before Sept. 15, the second week after Congress returns.

Pelosi said she favored a "robust" public insurance plan to "keep the insurance companies honest" by increasing competition that should bring down costs. She noted that all three House measures, and one version of the Senate legislation, include the so-called public option.

Obama's Top Priority

House and Senate lawmakers have struggled for months to agree on legislation to overhaul the U.S. health-care system, President Barack Obama's top domestic policy priority. They've tried to reach consensus on issues including whether to set up a government-run insurance program and whether to require that employers offer coverage.

"We'll have the best possible bill," Pelosi said. The speaker said she favored a combination of a surcharge on incomes of more than $500,000 for individuals or $1 million for couples and a tax on insurers that offer expensive health-care coverage to finance half the $1 trillion plan. The rest would be paid for with cost savings mandated by the legislation, she said.

"There is a positive attitude toward taxing the insurance companies, as you can imagine, but it would have to be at the very high end" of health-coverage packages, she said.

Insurer profits declined last year after rising for a decade, according to Bloomberg data.

UnitedHealth Group Inc.'s net income rose six-fold between 2000 and 2007, to $4.65 billion, WellPoint Inc.'s rose almost 15 times, to $3.35 billion and profit at Aetna Inc., the third- largest insurer by sales, jumped 14-fold to $1.83 billion.

UnitedHealth's return on equity was 15 percent last year and WellPoint's was 11 percent. By comparison, Exxon Mobil Corp.'s was 39 percent; Johnson & Johnson's was 30 percent and Microsoft Corp.'s was 53 percent.

'Roadblock' to Reform

Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for America's Health Insurance Plans, the Washington-based trade group, defended the industry's handling of the overhaul effort and called a government-run plan a "roadblock to reform."

"The attacks against health insurers are politically motivated and ignore the significant contributions our community has made to the health-care reform process," Zirkelbach said.

On a separate issue, Pelosi said she isn't sure whether Congress would need to add more than the $2 billion that the House approved today to continue a program to scrap older, more polluting vehicles.

The House voted today voted 316-109 to add $2 billion into the cash-for-clunkers program after consumer demand exhausted the initial $1 billion in less than a week. The program has generated 250,000 in car sales over six days, she said.

"There may be a diminishing return that happens after a while after many of these cars have been traded in, but in the meantime, there are jobs in the auto industry," Pelosi said. "We have helped the consumer. We have had an impact on the economy, and we have protected the environment. So it is all very positive."

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