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Proposed Anthem Blue Cross Rate Hike Could Mean Future Refund Checks for Consumers

1:39 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

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Anthem Blue Cross could owe big refund checks to 730,000 Californians if its proposed rate hikes of up to 25% are deemed excessive thanks to an initiative voters will consider on the 2014 ballot.

The ballot measure requires health insurance companies to get approval before raising rates and allows that refunds be ordered on rates that are considered excessive after November 6, 2012. When voters approve the measure, the insurance commissioner will have the power to retroactively order refunds for excessive rates.

Read the initiative here

“Anthem and every health insurance company in California are on notice: Excessive rate hikes they impose today could mean big refund checks for consumers down the road,” said Carmen Balber with Consumer Watchdog.

Anthem has proposed rate hikes averaging 18%, and as high as 25%, for 630,000 individual policyholders.

It has proposed rate hikes averaging 15%, and as high as 25%, for another 100,000 individual policyholders.

The Insurance Rate Public Justification and Accountability Act qualified for the ballot in August, after Consumer Watchdog Campaign and allies submitted petitions containing 800,000 voter signatures.

“Californians can no longer afford the outrageous double-digit rate hikes health insurance companies like Anthem have imposed year after year, and sometimes multiple times a year, ” said Jamie Court, proponent of the ballot measure and president of Consumer Watchdog. “This initiative gives voters the chance to take control of health insurance prices by forcing health insurance companies to publicly open their books and justify rates, under penalty of perjury.”

Senator Dianne Feinstein, the first person to sign the ballot petition, is an honorary co-chair of the ballot initiative campaign, which is also supported by California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones.

The ballot initiative builds on California’s successful model of rate regulation for auto, home and other property and business insurance. That law, Proposition 103, was enacted by the voters in 1988 and has saved California drivers $62 billion since it was enacted.

The Insurance Rate Public Justification and Accountability Act:

  • Requires health insurance companies to publicly disclose and justify, under penalty of perjury, proposed rate changes before they take effect.
  • Makes every document filed by an insurance company to justify a rate increase a public record.
  • Requires public hearings on proposed rate increases.
  • Gives Californians the right to challenge excessive and unfair premium rate increases.
  • Prohibits health, auto and home insurers from considering Californians’ credit history or prior insurance coverage when setting premiums or deciding whether to offer coverage.
  • Gives the elected insurance commissioner authority to reject unjustified rate increases.

Stop Billionaires From Buying the Vote

2:53 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

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We have just one week to beat the insurance billionaires trying to buy this election.

We plastered these posters around the streets of San Francisco and Los Angeles to expose these deceptive billionaire propositions. Can you help us make sure more voters know?

Please post our new posters on Facebook today. Don’t use Facebook? Share the posters directly from our website here.

Our grassroots campaign against Prop 33 has just a few hundred thousand dollars to compete with the $16.4 million spent by insurance billionaire George Joseph, chairman of Mercury Insurance.

PhotobucketAnd last week, Charlie Munger Jr., the heir to the Berkshire Hathaway fortune including GEICO Insurance, sank another $13 million – for a total $35 million – into the campaign for Prop 32.

Prop 32 will take away workers’ voices in Sacramento but preserve the power of big corporations and wealthy individuals – like Munger and Joseph – to spend unlimited amounts in elections. Prop 33 will deregulate auto insurance and allow insurance companies to raise rates on good drivers just because they decide to stop driving for awhile.

We’ve got just 7 days left to expose these billionaires and stop them from buying the election.

Please share our posters on Facebook, or find the posters on our website and email your friends.

Your voice can beat the money spent by these insurance billionaires, but only if you help us spread the word. Tell your friends to vote No on Props 32 and 33 today!

Mercury Insurance Gave $25K to Greenlining Institute for Flip-Flop Prop 33 Endorsement

3:26 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

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Consumer Advocates Call On Group To Withdraw Support For Measure That Would Raise Car Insurance Rates on Good Drivers

The nonprofit Greenlining Institute acknowledged in a San Francisco Bay Guardian story published today that it received a $25,000 donation from Mercury insurance company, and expects more for its work in support of Mercury-backed Proposition 33. Prop 33 is funded by Mercury insurance’s billionaire chairman George Joseph and would raise car insurance rates on good drivers who have a break in insurance coverage, even if they’re not driving.

In a letter, Consumer Watchdog urged Greenlining to reverse its decision to support Proposition 33. Greenlining opposed a nearly identical ballot measure proposed by Mercury insurance company in 2010, Prop 17.

Download the letter here

Read the San Francisco Bay Guardian story

“We are writing to urge you to reconsider your shocking support for Proposition 33 and the auto insurance redlining it seeks to legalize,” wrote Consumer Watchdog founder Harvey Rosenfield and Washington DC director Carmen Balber. “Greenlining purports to represent the very low-income drivers who will be hurt the most if Proposition 33 is approved next November, allowing insurance companies to surcharge Californians who stop driving for legitimate reasons and then choose to get back on the road.”

Prop 33 would overturn a 24-year-old law banning discriminatory practices by auto insurance companies that were brought to light in the 1987 California civil rights case, King v. Meese.

“The rampant practice of surcharging, or refusing to sell insurance to, people who were not previously insured was one of the most pernicious of the discriminatory techniques employed by the insurance industry,” said the letter. “In signing the ballot argument for Proposition 33, you have aligned yourself with George Joseph and Mercury Insurance, the most persistent partisans for the legalization of the old redlining tricks that made auto insurance inaccessible to low-income families and communities of color for decades.”

The letter notes that Proposition 33 targets Californians who stop driving for legitimate reasons:

  • When low-wage workers who commute by bus need to get a car in order to maintain their job, they will be surcharged by about 40% for auto insurance;
  • When immigrant drivers are finally able to obtain a California driver’s license and try to buy insurance, they will be forced to pay hundreds and possibly thousand of dollars more than the drivers who purchased insurance in the past, even though they are equally good drivers;
  • When drivers who have found it financially impossible to maintain uninterrupted insurance coverage turn to the auto insurance market in hopes of complying with the mandatory insurance law, they will face a financial penalty for being poor;
  • Those who cannot afford these massive surcharges will be exposed to penalties and seizure of their vehicles for failure to comply with the Financial Responsibility Law.

Tax-Dodger CEOS Race to Cheat Californians–Watch It Now!

4:34 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

Consumer Watchdog has been growling for a while about global corporations that use a tax loophole to pay less in California corporate taxes than in-state companies. Four major companies–Kimberly Clark (Kleenex, Scott toilet paper), General Motors, Chrysler and International Paper–have even launched a major lobbying campaign in the state to save their selfish loophole. They are happy, obviously, cheating the state of a billion or more dollars a year that could keep teachers in jobs, the disabled out of nursing homes and parks open.

Now there’s a ballot initiative, Prop 39, that’s aimed at closing the tax loophole, and one of its first public blasts is this funny video, “The Tax Dodger Olympic Dash”–track and field for billionaires.

Along with the video is a text tidbit, revealing that the same companies fighting to keep their loophole in California fought just as hard to keep such tax loopholes out of their home states. There’s nothing like a heaping helping of corporate hypocrisy to start the day!
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Posted by Judy Dugan, research director for Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to providing an effective voice for taxpayers and consumers in an era when special interests dominate public discourse, government and politics. Visit us on Facebook and Twitter.

Health Insurance: Rebates Are a Drop In the Bucket, but Justifying Rates Means Real Savings

7:15 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

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Thursday’s reports that some Californians will get rebates on their health insurance premiums are a little bit of good news–but not nearly as good as it could be.

An L.A. Times story reports that California small businesses and their employees who are insured by United Health Group will get rebates averaging $98 on last year’s premiums because United Health didn’t spend at least 80% of the premiums on health care, a requirement under the federal health reform. The total will come to about $3.5 million in the state. Other insurers may also owe money on small business, large employer and individual policies–the figures are still being crunched.

But what if insurance companies could not overcharge us in the first place? The 80% rule in the federal law only encourages insurance companies to pay hospitals and doctors inflated prices, because it inflates the 20% that insurance companies get to keep. (It’s like the Hollywood agent who gets a 15% cut–his personal incentive is to get the biggest price for his client.) With no real curbs in California on how much insurance companies can charge, they have no incentive to bargain for lower medical costs to begin with.

Unlike 35 other states, California has no power to make health insurance companies justify their rates and to deny or modify unreasonable or unjustified rates before they go into effect. Californians also have no right to make the state do its job through consumer challenges to unjustified rates. All this would change if voters pass an initiative, sponsored by the Consumer Watchdog Campaign, that’s headed for the November ballot.

Which brings us to another huge source of savings–the inflated rates that insurance companies encourage hospitals and in some cases doctors to charge. A shocking recent story, also in the L.A. Times, found that patients who are insured are often paying out of pocket many times the amount of patients who pay cash for the same treatment.

Here, from the story, is how it works:

Many hospitals, doctors offer cash discount for medical bills

The lowest price is usually available only if patients don’t use their health insurance. In one case, blood tests that cost an insured patient $415 would have been $95 in cash.
May 27, 2012|By Chad Terhune

A Long Beach hospital charged Jo Ann Snyder $6,707 for a CT scan of her abdomen and pelvis after colon surgery. But because she had health insurance with Blue Shield of California, her share was much less: $2,336.

Then Snyder tripped across one of the little-known secrets of healthcare: If she hadn’t used her insurance, her bill would have been even lower, just $1,054.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Snyder, a 57-year-old hair salon manager. “I was really upset that I got charged so much and Blue Shield allowed that. You expect them to work harder for you and negotiate a better deal.”Unknown to most consumers, many hospitals and physicians offer steep discounts for cash-paying patients regardless of income. But there’s a catch: Typically you can get the lowest price only if you don’t use your health insurance.

That disparity in pricing is coming under fire from people like Snyder, who say it’s unfair for patients who pay hefty insurance premiums and deductibles to be penalized with higher rates for treatment.

The difference in price can be stunning. Los Alamitos Medical Center, for instance, lists a CT scan of the abdomen on a state website for $4,423. Blue Shield says its negotiated rate at the hospital is about $2,400.

When The Times called for a cash price, the hospital said it was $250.

Is your blood boiling yet? Insured patients can try to pay the cash price, but elsewhere in the story we find that hospitals may not even allow patients with insurance to get the cash price. And if you pay cash, it doesn’t count against your deductible or the out-of-pocket limit for your policy. Is this cozy or what for the (usually for-profit) insurance companies and (often for-profit) hospitals?

If California had the power to approve, deny or modify unjustified health insurance rates before they went into effect, the insurance companies would have to do more than prove they’re spending 80% of your premium on whatever they can define as “health care.” With their books open and both consumers and regulators looking on, they’d have powerful incentives to push harder to bring down costs, just as auto insurance companies do—in large part because regulators are watching. Executive compensation in the millions would no longer come out of patients’ pockets.

That form of regulation, called “prior approval” of rates, is the aim of the ballot initiative sponsored by the Consumer Watchdog Campaign. The same kind of regulation, passed by voters as Proposition 103 in 1988, already saves hundreds of millions of dollars a year on average for auto and homeowner insurance buyers in the state. In just the first nine years after voters passed Prop 103 in 1988, property and casualty insurance companies had to fork over more than $1 billion in consumer rebates–similar in type to the $3.5 million United Health is paying.

It’s no surprise that the health industry is one of the state’s most powerful political lobbies. It’s no surprise that such lobbying power has killed every effort to pass effective control of health insurance rates in the Legislature. It’s also no surprise that stories like the one above are making voters furious. At least voters, unlike too many politicians, don’t have to do what the health insurance industry tells them to do.
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Posted by Judy Dugan, research director for Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to providing an effective voice for taxpayers and consumers in an era when special interests dominate public discourse, government and politics. Visit us on Facebook and Twitter.

Sign Now Or Forever Hold Your Peace…Regulate Health Insurance Rates

9:09 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

Next week we will be turning in the signatures for our ballot petition to force health insurance companies to justify their rates and get permission before instituting their rate hikes.

Download, sign and return in the mail by the end of the weekend to be part of the signature turn-in or forever hold your peace.

This short video preview of the initiative by our friends in Hollywood explains why this is the most important autograph you will give this year.

Arnold Achieves ‘Post Partisanship’ With Uniform Disapproval In New Poll

8:29 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

PhotobucketThe quote of the week goes to Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll, which is just out with a poll that shows Arnold Schwarzenegger with a 75% disapproval rating among voters and with 90% of Los Angeles residents rejecting him.

DiCamillo told the San Francisco Chronicle: “He was going to be a … politician who really appealed to independent voters and who would reach across party lines,” DiCamillo said. The new poll shows that Schwarzenegger has “achieved the ‘post-partisan’ status.”

Republicans, Democrats, independents, Californians of all walks of life curse their former Governor. What’s made Arnold’s reign so disappointing is not that he betrayed his wife, but that he betrayed voters and their hopes.

Consumer Watchdog launched ArnoldWatch.org on Schwarzenegger’s gubernatorial inauguration day because we knew his talk about cleaning up Sacramento was phony. At the time Schwarzenegger had a 65% plus approval rating. We launched the blog ArnoldWatch.org to hold California’s new governor accountable to his pledge to clean up special-interest control in Sacramento and to chart the influence of big business over his administration. By 2005 Californians came to learn the Gov did not live up to his word when they rejected a slate of reactionary ballot measures he proposed. When Schwarzenegger left office in 2010, before the news of love child scandal, his approval rating was only 27%, tied with Governor Gray Davis at the moment of his recall.

What ruined Arnold wasn’t his infidelity to his family, but to his state. The blogs at Arnold Watch stand as a reminder of the need to be ever vigilant in holding our politicians accountable. The special interests he bedded while in the governor’s suite spawned some of the uglier moments of California governance. Sometimes we stopped him, sometimes we shamed him, other times Schwarzenegger’s donors won more than they should have. When Arnold was hurting, he was forced to take huge steps forward to rehabilitate his image — an increase in the minimum wage, a greenhouse gas emissions cap, support for gay marriage.

What matters to voters in the end, though, isn’t these strides forward for progress or the master marketer’s cosmetic remakes of himself. The voter’s final verdict was cast about his character.

Other politicians across America would do well to learn the lesson that, in the end, reputation and trust are all that truly matter. Every vote, every decision should be based not on the power of the interest group of the moment, or the political winds of an insular world, but on what’s right and wrong for history and a public official’s place in it. Until politicians are ready for that truth, Consumer Watchdog will be here to remind them of it.
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Posted by Jamie Court, author of The Progressive’s Guide to Raising Hell and President of Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to providing an effective voice for taxpayers and consumers in an era when special interests dominate public discourse, government and politics. Visit us on Facebook and Twitter.

Insurance Companies Double Down On Deceptive Campaign to Influence Insurance Commissioner Race in CA

4:56 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

Insurance companies’ addition of $1.365 million this weekend to their campaign to elect Mike Villines as CA insurance commissioner is consistent with Consumer Watchdog’s expectation that the industry will spend at least $5 million before election day.

The following insurance industry contributions, totaling $2.655 million, have been given to a Sacramento political committee called "JobsPAC," since late September: 

  • George Joseph, Chairman of Mercury Insurance – $775,000
  • Allstate Insurance – $700,000
  • Liberty Mutual – $490,000
  • Progressive Insurance – $390,000
  • Anthem Blue Cross – $100,000
  • Health Net – $100,000
  • Farmers Insurance- $100,000

To date, JobsPAC has spent approximately $845,000 on ads attacking candidate Dave Jones and $566,000 on ads supporting Mike Villines. Consumer advocates expect that JobsPAC will report another one million dollar expenditure on the race in the next few days and another two to three million dollars in insurance industry contributions and campaign expenditures before election day.

Because the industry money is first going to JobsPAC, the fact that it came from insurance companies will not be disclosed to voters who see or hear the ads. A copy of the television advertisement being aired can be viewed here. The advertisement’s disclosure, which makes no mention of insurance company funding, reads: "PAID FOR BY JOBSPAC, A BI-PARTISAN COALITION OF CALIFORNIA EMPLOYERS. NOT AUTHORIZED BY A CANDIDATE OR CANDIDATE-CONTROLLED COMMITTEE."

This insurance industry campaign to choose the next insurance commissioner is becoming an electoral deception of epic proportions. Most of the information Californians will get about the candidates for insurance commissioner will be delivered in advertisements entirely paid for by the insurance industry and voters won’t even know it.

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Posted by Doug Heller, Executive Director of Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to providing an effective voice for taxpayers and consumers in an era when special interests dominate public discourse, government and politics. Visit us on Facebook and Twitter.