By Erica Werner and Alan Fram, Associated Press | February 25, 2010
WASHINGTON – The House voted overwhelmingly yesterday to repeal the health insurance industry’s exemption from federal antitrust oversight, giving Democrats an easy win on health care a day ahead of President Obama’s bipartisan health summit.
The 406-to-19 vote was part of a multipronged attack by Democrats against the unpopular industry. At a contentious House hearing, Democrats confronted executives of one company that has sought rate increases of up to 39 percent in California, accusing them of purging their sickest customers while spending millions on exorbitant salaries and retreats at ritzy resorts for executives.
And the secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, wrote to the heads of five major insurance companies asking them to meet with her to justify their pricing policies.
All three moves were more symbolic than substantive, but together they underscored that Democrats consider attacks on the widely disliked health insurance industry one way to revive support for the party’s health care drive. Democrats also hope today’s summit will jump-start the debate.
“Health insurance premiums continue to spiral ever upward each year. The copayments and deductibles keep taking further bites out of tight family budgets,’’ said Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers, Democrat from Michigan, as the House debated the antitrust bill.
The legislation would put insurers under federal antitrust jurisdiction by amending a 1945 law that gave states, not the federal government, the authority to regulate competition issues within the insurance industry.
Independent analysts largely agree that the change would have minimal effect, in part because of the regulatory role states already play.
Democrats, however, argued that the repeal would help consumers by increasing competition.
As the House debated the antitrust bill, executives of WellPoint Inc. were under fire from the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The chairman, Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, said his panel’s investigators had received internal company documents from 2008 showing that 39 WellPoint executives received salaries of $1 million or more. And in 2007 and 2008, it spent $27 million for executive retreats at fancy resorts in Hawaii and Arizona.
WellPoint president Angela Braly attributed the increases to the growing price tags for hospital care and pharmaceuticals.