March 17, 2010 12:00

Obama, Perdue should freeze premiums

Last year Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm issued Executive Directive number 2009-1, which ordered a freeze on auto-insurance rate increases.

Her directive went largely unnoticed by the mainstream media, but it provided a lesson in how to govern effectively during a crisis. President Barack Obama and Gov. Beverly Perdue could learn from that lesson by enacting emergency directives to freeze all health-insurance premiums immediately.

While I’d like to take credit for advancing this radical idea, the chief proponent for a freeze is Harvey Rosenfield, founder of Consumer Watchdog. Rosenfield, you may recall, was the architect of California’s Proposition 103, which is widely recognized as the most successful insurance regulation in the country. Now he is campaigning for a national freeze on health-insurance premiums.

Rosenfield went on the warpath after Anthem Blue Cross/Blue Shield recently raised premiums on some golden state customers by as much as 39 percent to 69 percent.

Unfortunately, such abuses are not confined to California. State by state, companies like Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Aetna, Cigna and United Health Care (and their various incarnations) legally conspire to set and routinely raise premiums on customers who are powerless to fight back. The result has been devastating for millions of American families.

Medical bills are now the No. 1 cause of bankruptcies and foreclosures.

Moreover, approximately 10,000 people lose their health insurance every day because they can no longer pay the rising premiums. This has also led to thousands of unnecessary deaths each year because people with treatable diseases and conditions couldn’t afford treatment.

Elected officials from both parties are well aware of the horror stories wrought by our broken healthcare system. At president Obama’s summit two weeks ago, Republicans and Democrats recounted instances where constituents had suffered or died because they couldn’t afford insurance or the care it could have provided. And last week, as the president finally started to get aggressive with his push for an up-or-down vote on reform, the White House and Capitol Hill were treated to staged visits from victims of the healthcare crisis. But these testimonials and photo ops will provide little comfort to victims of insurance vultures unless politicians get over the gridlock and act quickly to stem abuses.

In the meantime, Rosenfield is calling for Obama to enact a freeze on insurance premiums at or below 2009 levels, with a guarantee that the public will have the right to further relief in the future. Such a freeze could be effected immediately with an executive order, which can bypass obstructionist congressmen who have been bought and paid for by the health insurance lobby. Concurrently, every governor could sign a similar directive, leaving state legislatures no room to wiggle out of the federal order. Absent these executive orders and gubernatorial directives, millions of Americans will be forced to drop their health insurance and leave their families unprotected against the ravages of disease, bankruptcy and foreclosure.

We might not be able to stop insurance lobbyists from blocking a comprehensive healthcare reform package altogether, but we can at least hope that our president and governor will use their unique powers to enact a key element of that reform, even if it means having to stand up to the very interests that helped get them elected. Let’s just see if they’re strong enough to take the heat for a freeze.

Jim Longworth 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 (cable channel 15).

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