Let’s play Monopoly

by Jim Longworth

If you want proof that Congress is collegially corrupted and gratuitously gridlocked, look no further than Sen. Harry Reid’s recent power play in which he used the McCarran-Ferguson Act as his weapon of mass distraction.

McCarran-Ferguson (which I will affectionately refer to as “MF”) was passed in 1945, ostensibly to protect the “business of insurance.” In effect, the act established that federal anti trust laws would not necessarily apply to companies like our modern day Blue Cross

Blue Shield. But MF included a loophole. It also empowered Congress to pass laws “in the future” that could essentially regulate health insurance companies. The latter provision is a sword that Congress hasn’t had to pull until earlier this month. That’s when Senate Democrats, who saw the public option slipping away, and who thought they had bent over backwards to accommodate the insurance industry, were angered when that same industry announced premiums would rise as a result of healthcare reform.

And so, Reid, along with other Democrat buddies like Vermont Sen. Pat Leahy, announced they would seek to repeal any anti-trust exemptions that the insurance industry had enjoyed under MF. The gauntlet that Reid threw down sent momentary shock waves through the executive offices of health insurance companies. After all, a loss of the exemption could mean that large monopolies like Blue Cross might be broken up (much like AT&T had been) and would no longer be able to legally collude with its few mega competitors, like United Health Care and Aetna, to set rates and policies. Obama soon followed Reid into the fray. Speaking on his radio and internet address, the president bashed health insurance executives for taking huge salaries and bonuses “while enjoying a privileged exemption from our antitrust laws.”

Some observers believe that Obama and Reid are using the threat of McCarran-Ferguson to force the health insurance lobby into releasing their hold over hundreds of congressmen who had been told not to vote for a public option. Whether the Dems’ sabre rattling is for real remains to be seen. Either way, I am angry at old Harry and young Barack for their hypocrisy and tardiness. They should have played the anti trust card long ago, and fought to actually make it stick.

As far back as 2006, the American Medical Association went on record saying that healthcare insurance companies enjoyed a virtual monopoly. Among the AMA’s findings were examples of a healthcare system controlled by a privileged fewinsurance executives. In Maine, only two companies control 88 percentof the health insurance market. In Missouri, only two companies control79 percent of the market. In North Dakota, just one company controls 89percent of the market. And across America, 94 percent of markets arenot competitive.

Yetin spite of these staggering statistics, Congress and the White Househave dragged their feet when it comes to reigning in insurancemonopolies. Earlier this year Obama let Big Pharma off the hook when heagreed not to press for price breaks to medicare patients, or an openflow of cheaper drugs from Canada.

Soforgive me if I am a bit skeptical about the administration’s verbalthreats aimed at the insurance industry. For all we know, MF is just asmokescreen to ensure that the uninsured get coverage. Or it could bean effort to get a weakened form of the public option that is more likea co-op program which each state can opt out of. I hope I’m wrong aboutReid and company’s motives, but something tells me when the dustsettles, the big insurance companies will still be free to raisepremiums anytime they wish, and continue to monopolize the markets nomatter which version of healthcare reform passes. In addition, if Obamadoes make a deal to mandate coverage for everyone, companies like BlueCross will profit even more from the acquisition of 47 million newcustomers. And don’t worry if the formerly uninsured population can’tpay for their new coverage, because the rest of us will be mandated tosubsidize them.

TeddyRoosevelt, the original trust buster, must be spinning in his grave atObama’s lackluster and duplicitous use of the bully pulpit to weakenthe health insurance monopolies. Meanwhile, the insurance industry isspinning legislation designed to improve their bottom line by denyingcoverage to those of us who are trying to stay out of the grave.Appropriately, all this talk of grave spinning comes on the heels ofHalloween. That’s the season in which politicians like Reid can trickus with hollow bravado, leaving us alone to hand out big treats toinsurance companies. It’s enough to bust a man’s trust in government.

JimLongworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m.on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cablechannel 15).