WASHINGTON – Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said taxpayers should demand “fair treatment” from health insurance companies in return for making them “wildly profitable” with subsides over the years.
With Obamacare fully implemented, Warren said health insurance companies will likely resist any government attempts to raise “coverage standards” any further.
“They will stamp their feet and threaten to walk away from the healthcare exchanges. My response? Give me a break. The five big publicly-traded insurance companies in this country, together, cover 125 million people and they are raking in cash – more than $17 billion in profits in the last year alone. So don’t tell me an industry that has $17 billion in profits to hand out to its investors and its executives in a single year cannot do right by the American people – just don’t tell me that,” Warren said during a recent address at the Families USA Conference.
“And as we wrestle with insurance companies to get them to treat their customers a little better, keep in mind on this that taxpayers are directly responsible for a huge proportion of those giant profits. The top insurers in the United States pull in nearly 60 percent of their total revenue from Medicare and Medicaid – that is more than $200 billion in 2016 revenues coming directly from American taxpayers and that’s not all,” she added.
Warren continued, “Through the tax code, the federal government subsidizes the cost of insurance to the tune of $260 billion a year. Through the Affordable Care Act, over the next decade, taxpayers will contribute more than half a trillion dollars to insurance companies. Taxpayers have helped make insurance companies wildly profitable and taxpayers can ask for fair treatment in return.”
Warren said “good riddance” to insurance companies that oppose federal efforts to change the way they do business, arguing that insurers should have to comply with new rules if they want government contracts.
“If an insurer wants to bid on a Medicare Advantage contract or a state Medicaid contract, they should know that they could also be required to participate in that state’s health insurance exchanges. Don’t you think so? In other words, if they want to bid on the really juicy federal healthcare contracts, they should have to offer a basic private insurance plan for individuals as well, even if those exchange plans don’t produce quite the same juicy profits for their investors,” she said.
“And if some insurance companies really, truly are not willing to provide high-quality, affordable coverage in exchange for billions of dollars in federal subsidies and access to Medicare and Medicaid – if they really and truly want to pick up their toys and go home because a bazillion dollar in profits isn’t enough – then I say good riddance. If the insurance company walks, then we should replace their policies with public alternatives that we already know will provide better, more affordable coverage at a lower cost to taxpayers,” she added.
Warren emphasized that the Democrats would defend Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act with “everything” they have but cautioned that progressives should “do more than play defense.”
“Millions of families are counting on us and I believe it is time to go on offense and that’s why I wanted to come. Now the Affordable Care Act made massive strides in expanding access to health insurance. Even today, more than 28 million Americans, however, are uninsured,” she said. “I endorsed Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All bill because it lays out a way to give every single person in this country a guarantee of high-quality healthcare. Everybody gets covered. Nobody goes broke because of a medical bill. No more fighting with insurance companies. This is a goal worth fighting for and I am in this fight all the way.”
Warren mentioned other healthcare reform efforts from Democrats that she would support.
“We could give everyone the option to buy public coverage on the ACA exchanges, like Senator Whitehouse and others have proposed. We could let every person in the country choose Medicare, like Senators Bennett and Kaine have suggested. We could let families buy in to Medicaid, which is the plan Senator Schatz has put forward. We could let employers buy Medicare coverage for their employees,” she said.
“Private insurance companies are failing the American people,” the senator added. “We all know it and whatever public alternatives you support, there is no reason on earth for us to continue to allow the healthcare of the American people to be held hostage by an industry that both attacks any new healthcare proposals and at the same time, refuses to do anything to fix it.”
Warren said too many Americans remain uninsured so Congress has to “build” on Obamacare with additional changes to improve the healthcare system.
“Here’s the good news: government sets the rules and government can change the rules. Thanks to President Obama’s leadership, the Affordable Care Act made enormous strides in leveling the playing field for families. Protections like a ban on annual and lifetime limits, guaranteed coverage for mental health and for addiction services and ending the discrimination that allowed insurers to charge women more for their insurance than they charge men,” she said.
“We need to build on that progress and to do more to hold America’s insurance companies accountable. I believe America’s government should work for the middle class and not for insurance companies and their executives. And that means so long as private health insurance exists, we should require these companies to provide coverage that is at least as good and priced at least as reasonably as the coverage offered by our public healthcare programs,” she added.
Warren said there are certain health insurance company practices that should be outlawed.
“Ask anyone about whether or not insurance is working for them. Ask, them and then stand back as the horror stories come pouring out. The mom with a sick kid who needs to see an ear, nose, and throat specialist, but she is told she is going to have to drive five hours to find a doctor in-network. The patient with a rare disease who is terrified that she’ll log on to the marketplace next year and find zero plans that will permit her to see her same doctor,” Warren said.
“Or the worker who is in constant pain but is too worried to seek medical treatment because every time he has in the past the insurance company has managed to hit him with a bill that’s the same size as his mortgage payment. These examples we’ve documented aren’t the exception – they’re the rule and they should be outlawed,” she added. “And to catch evolving scams, we should set up a program to compile consumer complaints about insurers and run down this kind of nonsense before it spreads.”
Following the speech, Warren did not answer questions from conference attendees or reporters.