'Charity' Health Insurers Are Awash in Cash, Yet Still Want Monster Premium Hikes


"Health care can't operate like it is and be humane, affordable, and accessible," says Rose Roach.

Minnesota Nurses Association Executive Director Rose Roach's words fly in between bouts of disgusted laughter.

She's riffing insolent rebukes to state health insurers, who claim they must jack premium rates in 2016 by as much as 74 percent because they're losing money. The proposed increases would affect roughly those 300,000 Minnesotans -- or just six percent of the state's health insurance population -- who buy insurance on the individual marketplace.

See also: UnitedHealth Swimming in Riches as Insurers Angle for Double Digit Premium Hikes

"Show me just one health insurance company's entire book of business that shows it's losing money," says Rose, who heads the 100-year-old, 20,000-member nurses association. "I haven't seen it. Show me! Most of these companies are showing record profits."

Rose is speaking about the likes of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota.

The Eagan carrier -- technically a nonprofit -- said last week it needs to raise health care premiums next year for 171,000 Minnesotans by 54 percent. The number bumps to 55 percent for the 8,000 state residents enrolled in its Blue Plus program.


Blue Cross's Michael Guyette pockets millions annually as the insurer's top exec

The insurer justified the proposed rate increases by claiming its books show "that our portfolio of individual products will close out the year with a deficit significantly in excess of the $135 million in losses."

That may be true for one page, but the remaining pages reveal a company -- and an industry -- flush with cash, and throngs of "nonprofit" executives inking salaries akin to those of professional sports.

According to Allan Baumgarten, an analyst who's studied the state's health care market for the past 25 years, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota is sitting on cash, investments, and real estate totaling $718 million.

The most recent salary reported for Blue Cross President and CEO Michael Guyette pushed $2 million in 2013.

Tax exempt records for Blue Plus show a nonprofit that was in the black by almost $360 million that same year. It also lists 14 officers, directors, and the like pocketing salaries of no less than $350,000.

Among the soaring payouts: $560,000 to treasurer Pamela Sedmak and almost $1.2 million to senior vice president Patricia Riley. Another treasurer, Jamison Rice, made nearly $700,000.

That's a lot of money for people supposedly doing charity work.

"Saying these are 'nonprofits,'" says Roach, "it's just unrealistic. What they really are is middlemen, who tack on 20 to 30 percent in administrative costs to the system, yet don't bring anything to the table that actually helps in addressing the health care needs of people...

"When they propose these obscene rate increases, they'll give you the list. Sick people using the system. It's their fault or Obama's because costs were higher than expected. According to who? There's no transparency in what they actually pay for things. We're supposed to just take their word. It's easy for them to say these things. But their entire books of business show health insurers are making plenty of money."

A Pioneer Press story published late last week listed three "key" factors behind carriers' proposed rate increases: the phasing out of federal subsidies meant to help insurers "ease" into the adoption of the Affordable Care Act, higher costs for certain prescription drugs, and more enrollees for individual plans with expensive health conditions.

"Insurers can't stay in business for too long if they can't pay their providers," Baumgarten says. "On the other hand, how much more money do they really need?"

A Minnesota Department of Health study published last March reported that the state's HMOs had a combined $1.785 billion in capital reserves.

HealthPartners, another supposed "nonprofit," wants to hike rates by 23 percent for the 52,000 Minnesotans it covers.

HealthPartners most recent tax-exempt filing shows it paid Care Groups President David Abelson $1.7 million in 2013. President and CEO Mary K. Brainerd pocketed in excess of $2 million.

All told, HealthPartners paid no less than 30 execs, directors, and key employees at least $350,000 annually in 2013, including nearly to $700,000 to senior vice president for strategic planning and human resources Calvin Allented. More than $1 million was pocketed by executive vice president Kathleen Cooney.


Bloomington's HealthPartners (building far right) has assets surpassing $900 million

Meanwhile, Baumgarten says that last year HealthPartners came out $900 million in the black.

"How do these 'nonprofits' pay all these administrators, these people who just get in between doctors and patients, nurses and patients, all this money yet they say they're losing money?" asks Roach. "How do they build the kind of reserves that we're seeing if we're to believe they're paying out more in claims than what they're taking in?

"It's become what I call 'the health care industrial complex.' These people say we should fear change in health care, that they're working to make health care more affordable and accessible to more people. I say we should fear the status quo."

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