Sebelius and insurance rep clash, ever so politely, at industry meeting

Jon Ward Contributor
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The nation’s top health insurance spokeswoman and President Obama’s top health-care official crossed swords, if ever so politely, in remarks to a gathering of industry representatives in Washington on Wednesday.

Karen Ignagni, president of America’s Health Insurance Plans, preempted remarks by Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius – in which she called on the industry to stop opposing the president’s reform plan – by saying that the industry, in fact, fully supports “massive change.”

Sebelius, speaking moments later to a ballroom of several hundred insurance company employees at the Ritz-Carlton, called on them to stop “spending energy attacking the parts of the plan you don’t like.”

“I am hopeful that you will take the assets that you have and influence and the bully pulpit that you have and use it to start calling for comprehensive health reform to pass,” Sebelius said.

“We are on the page and fully committed,” Ignagni had said moments earlier, as Sebelius sat waiting to speak.

Both Ignagni and Sebelius spoke in measured tones and showed no agitation, but their showdown comes as the health-care debate is coming to a head and sparking angry attacks on insurers by the White House and its allies in the Democratic party and the labor movement, which organized a protest of over 1,000 people Tuesday outside AHIP’s annual meeting.

Sebelius said she had not come to “to vilify hardworking employees of insurance companies … or blame insurance companies for all the problems in the health care system.”

Others in the White House did take shots at the industry.

The president’s communications adviser, Dan Pfeiffer, wrote on the White House blog Tuesday night that “right after the insurance companies announced huge rate increases for families across the country, they gathered at the luxurious Ritz Carlton in Washington to announce that they are spending $1 million on ads to defeat health reform.”

“That money could probably be better spent keeping rates down for customers,” Pfeiffer wrote.

The insurers mounted their own rapid-response new media effort.

As Sebelius rose to speak, AHIP’s press shop sent out the first of three fact-check e-mails to reporters, taking issue with Sebelius’s assertion that insufficient competition exists in the industry, with the charge that insurers are arbitrarily raising premiums, and pointing out that insurance rates have risen more slowly than in other sectors of the health-care industry, such as hospitals.

Ignagni said insurers are “not committed to incremental proposals” and “have not proposed incremental proposals.”

“Everybody here would want you to know and want the nation to know that our members are very concerned about premiums,” she said.

Sebelius asked the industry to increase transparency about its rate hike proposals as well as the reasons for them.

Ignagni said afterward that transparency is “the only way we’re going to get at the rising costs of health care.” But that remark was clearly aimed at health-care providers as much as it was insurers. Ignani promised to “fast-track” work on pricing transparency.

*Correction: Ignagni’s last name was misspelled in the original version of this story.