Health insurance companies urge staff to fight reforms

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 12, 2009; 3:10 PM

The nation's largest health insurance carrier is urging its employees to lobby the Senate against reform proposals that would hurt the firm's bottom line, according to copies of e-mails released Thursday by a liberal advocacy group.

UnitedHealth Group, which is based in Minnesota, sent an e-mail message (PDF) to its 75,000 employees on Tuesday asking them to write their senators and local newspapers in opposition to a public insurance option, alleging that "government-run health care" will force "millions of Americans" to drop their current coverage.

Proposed form letters from the company also lay out opposition to cuts in the costly Medicare Advantage program and advocate higher financial penalties for individuals who do not buy health insurance. The e-mail was sent by United for Health Reform, which is the name of the company's lobbying arm; the subject line read: "Write Your Senators!"

"Government-run health care will result in millions of Americans not being able to keep their current coverage and will lead to unintended consequences of higher premiums and less choice," one proposed letter reads. "In addition, I am disturbed by proposed legislation that will lead to increased taxes, less affordable coverage, and reduced benefits."

Consumer Watchdog, the California-based advocacy group which obtained the documents, says the letters are full of misleading GOP talking points, such as the claim that millions will lose coverage. The group also says the campaign amounts to intimidation of employees of UnitedHealth Group and its main operating division, UnitedHealthcare.

"No UnitedHealthcare employee would modify the lobbying letter to favor Medicare-for-All, or even a modest public option, knowing that his or her managers may be reading that e-mail," said Judy Dugan, Consumer Watchdog's research director. "They wouldn't dare to speak against the company position unless they've already got a new job lined up."

UnitedHealth officials strongly disputed the intimidation allegation, noting that the e-mail called the letter-writing campaign "completely voluntary."

"We are proud of the skills and passion our 75,000 employees bring to their jobs helping improve health care every day, and that many of them are interested in sharing their informed perspectives constructively and respectfully in the health reform debate," said UnitedHealth spokesman John Parker. "We repeatedly underscore that any involvement on their part is entirely voluntary and that they are free to express a position whatever it may be."

The campaign is the latest in a series of attempts by major insurers to enlist company employees as political advocates in the Washington debate over health reform, and many Republicans argue that Democrats do the same through e-mail and letter campaigns organized by trade unions. Consumer Watchdog filed complaints earlier this year against UnitedHealth and WellPoint Inc., another top insurance conglomerate, for allegedly pressuring employees to lobby against health reform in violation of California law.

At another major insurer, Indianapolis-based Cigna, two executives sent a staff e-mail Wednesday criticizing the health reform package approved in the House last weekend and urging Cigna employees "to act as emissaries for our company and reach out to your elected officials to educate them." The e-mail, which was also obtained by Consumer Watchdog, included a link to an internal company website called "Talking Politics."

The health insurance industry has become a major foe of the White House and congressional Democrats, who frequently single out insurers as a key cause of rising health-care costs and the growing ranks of uninsured Americans. The industry is strongly opposed to the public insurance option contained in the House bill, which would create a government-run plan to compete with private insurers, and hopes to quash the idea in the more conservative Senate.

The insurance industry has spent more than $120 million on direct lobbying in Washington through September of this year, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. UnitedHealth Group alone has spent $3.5 million so far, disclosure reports show.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company