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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Health Care Meets Shark Week!

Playing off Discovery Channel’s much-watched Shark Week, MoveOn.org Political Action launched a video likening health insurance companies to these predators of the sea.

[TET ]

Announcer: They are enormous and powerful. They prey on our weaknesses, trying to separate the healthy from the sick. Their strategy is to confuse and exhaust their victims. And they kill people each year by denying coverage while profiting billions. During shark week, let’s take on the real predators: health insurance companies. Call Congress, tell them: don’t put insurance profits before health care. Support a real public option.[/TET]

Sure, insurance companies are "enormous and powerful," as the video says, and they make billions in profits. And at least some certainly try to "separate the healthy from the sick" in selling health plans. But do insurance companies really "kill people each year by denying coverage"? Really? Killing people?

We asked MoveOn.org Political Action to back up that claim of murder-by-denial. What it provided was a study that found thousands have died because they didn’t have health insurance. The 2008 study by the Urban Institute estimated that 22,000 persons died in 2006 due to lack of coverage. The UI study updated numbers from a previous report by the Institute of Medicine:

Urban Institute, Jan. 2008: In 2002, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) estimated that 18,000 Americans died in 2000 because they were uninsured. Since then, the number of uninsured has grown. Based on the IOM’s methodology and subsequent Census Bureau estimates of insurance coverage, 137,000 people died from 2000 through 2006 because they lacked health insurance, including 22,000 people in 2006.

But are insurance companies to blame for those deaths? MoveOn.org lays the blame for at least some of the lack of coverage on the insurance companies, claiming they charge too much for premiums. It points to another study by the Commonwealth Fund that found many who tried to buy health care on their own couldn’t afford the high cost.

Commonwealth Fund, July 21, 2009: Seventy-three percent of people who tried to buy insurance on their own in the last three years did not purchase a policy, primarily because premiums were too high. In addition, among adults with individual coverage or who tried to buy coverage in the past three years … 36 percent were denied coverage or charged more because of a pre-existing condition, or had the condition excluded from their cover.

That report also said that adults with health issues had the most difficulty in finding a health insurance policy. "[N]early half were turned down or charged a higher premium because of a pre-existing condition," the report found. "Nearly 80 percent never purchased a plan."

These are depressing reports, but does it all back up MoveOn.org’s claim that insurance companies are killing people out of a shark-like appetite for profits?

As we’ve pointed out previously (The ‘Real’ Uninsured, June 24) people who lack insurance do so for a variety of reasons. According to one study, more than one in four who are not insured could qualify for some form of existing government coverage, and at least some others have incomes high enough that they could purchase health insurance if they chose. Also worth noting is that the health insurance industry is actually lobbying for "universal" coverage to be achieved through an "enforceable individual mandate" requiring all individuals to acquire health insurance, the way automobile owners are required to have liability insurance. That’s the same sort of individual mandate that Hillary Clinton supported when she was running for the Democratic presidential nomination last year, when she chastised candidate Barack Obama for not being willing to go far enough to cover all the uninsured.

The insurance industry’s main lobbying arm, America’s Health Insurance Plans, also is supporting new federal rules to require that private policies cover preexisting conditions, and to require that companies must insure all comers (guaranteed issue). And it supports federal aid in the form of refundable tax credits to help low-income workers and families pay the cost of the required insurance.

It’s true that AHIP is opposed to creating any new federal insurance plan that companies would have to compete against. But given that AHIP supports a major overhaul of insurance regulation and "universal coverage" achieved through an individual mandate and federal subsidies for the cost of private insurance, we judge MoveOn.org’s "Shark Week" ad to be both simplistic and misleading.