If you’re on the mailing list of House Republican Whip Eric Cantor—and if you’re not, you are missing out on some absolutely delightful pictures of kittens wearing hats—you’ve probably already seen this memo about health care reform. Come to think of it, if you’ve watched C-SPAN or listened to Glenn Beck or been anywhere the reproduction of moving images of Republican congresspeople is not religiously forbidden, you’re probably familiar with its startling contention: If a government-run health insurance plan becomes a reality, 112 million Americans will lose their existing coverage. That’s two out of three working Americans, according to a study by the Lewin Group. And what is the Lewin Group? Only “the gold standard for this kind of analysis,” says Michael Steel (note: not the hilarious one,) a spokesman for John Boehner (R-OH.) He was probably paraphrasing a 2007 Wall Street Journal editorial, in which Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Bob Bennet (R-UT) said almost exactly the same thing. Unfortunately, the AOL has been all screwed up in John Boehner’s office since Father’s Day 2007. If it hadn’t, Steel probably would have mentioned that, as of June 18, 2007, the Lewin Group isn’t just the industry standard for health-care related independent analyses: it’s also a wholly-owned subsidiary of the UnitedHealth Group.
You probably haven’t heard of UnitedHealth Group, unless you’re one of the 70 million people who pay them for health insurance. To the untrained eye, it might appear that an independent study of the potential impact of the public health insurance option—prepared by a company that is owned by one of the largest private health insurance providers in America—might not be so, um, independent. Frankly, your cynicism saddens me. It also saddens Lewin Group Vice President John Sheils, who in the Washington Post assures us that “It hasn’t affected…the work we do, and I think people who know me know that I am not a good liar.”
I do not know you, John Sheils. I do know, however, that UnitedHealth Group has already had some trouble with the “independent” analyses of its subsidiaries. Like, investigated-by-theNew-York-State-Attorney-General-level trouble. In January, UHG forked over $350 million to settle a class-action suit against Ingenix, the company responsible for determining “reasonable and customary” reimbursements to UHG customers who see out-of-network doctors. Coincidentally, Ingenix is also a wholly-owned subsidiary of UnitedHealth, and coincidentally they were found to have lowballed their fee estimates by 10- to 28%. Ingenix has since left the fee-estimation industry, but not because they’re capable of recognizing that they did anything wrong. It’s just that they didn’t look like they were doing anything right, anymore. According to Ingenix CEO Andrew Slavitt, “The data didn’t have the appearance of independence that’s necessary for it to be useful.” If there’s one thing I want from the studies I use to determine the multi-billion-dollar federal policies, it’s the appearance of independence. Don’t worry, though—The Lewin Group isn’t owned by UnitedHealth directly. They’re owned by Ingenix. So Ingenix owns the Lewin Group, UnitedHealth owns Ingenix, yet according to Eric Cantor, Lewin is “independent.”
Why, exactly? Maybe it’s because UnitedHealth also owns a controlling interest in Representative Cantor. The insurance giant has given over $60,000 to Cantor and Boehner, and that’s not counting donations from individuals associated with the company. So here’s how a bill becomes law, kids: UnitedHealth Group produces a study that determines the impact of the public option on UnitedHealth Group, which is then cited in the impassioned arguments of congressmen who receive campaign contributions from UnitedHealth Group, who then use that money to stay in office and vote on legislation that will affect UnitedHealth Group. Also 300 million other Americans.
When you cut out the various subsidiaries and middlemen, it starts to look like there’s one major player, here. The good news is that they’re totally committed to integrity. The bad news is that you can’t vote them out of office, they have three billion dollars, they’ve already been accused of manufacturing bogus information by the State of New York, and they helped kill the public option. Whether that’s the fault of UHG, Ingenix, The Lewin Group or Eric Cantor is a matter of opinion. Personally, I think it’s our fault for letting them get away with it. We could have universal health care in this country, like they do in just about every other industrialized nation on earth. Instead, we have a corporatocracy, and we get to pay more for health care that’s worse than what Moroccans get for free. But hey—at least somebody’s getting their money’s worth.