Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Interview with Angela Braly: 'A Wasted Opportunity' -

Angela Braly is in good spirits considering that her company seems to have narrowly avoided being converted into a public utility, if not destroyed outright. One gets the sense that she'salways in good spirits. After years of sustained political assault, the power of positive thinking probably helps.

Mrs. Braly is the CEO and president of WellPoint, the largest U.S. commercial health insurer by membership. Her company's affiliated health plans in 14 states cover 34 million people—or roughly one out of nine Americans. It contracts with 82% of the nation's primary-care physicians, 84% of specialists, and 94% of hospitals. That scale lands her on the most-wanted list in President Obama's Washington, though it's tough to imagine a less likely villain than the very Midwestern Mrs. Braly.

"It's just not clear where we go from here," says the highest ranking woman in the Fortune 500, sounding as astonished as anyone about Scott Brown's victory. Merely days before this interview in WellPoint's lower Manhattan offices at the edge of Ground Zero, Massachusetts voters effectively sent ObamaCare to its own death panel. The reflexive liberal response was to castigate the likes of Mrs. Braly. "I mean, to be fair, the status quo is working for the insurance industry, but it's not working for the American people," Mr. Obama said recently.

To actually be fair, the insurance industry was a cheerleader for the plan, at least until the policy substance congealed sometime in September. "Obviously, we've been involved in this discussion for a while—more than a year—and if you think about it we came to the table early, early on and said we're going to be advocates for responsible, sustainable health-care reform done right," Mrs. Braly says. "We really do have to get at the underlying question of health-care costs."

That was the core promise of ObamaCare. Overall health costs for people insured by WellPoint increased by 8.9% in 2009 alone, and arresting this climb was the reason so many industry groups, not only the insurers, joined with the White House and Democrats. Nobody thinks the status quo is a success. But as Mrs. Braly notes ruefully, "The nature of health care is very complex, and sometimes the nature of politics is very simple."

The tragedy, as she sees it, is what "a wasted opportunity" it all turned out to be. "Health-care reform" soon became "health-insurance reform" exclusively. "It was a pivot that was—unfortunate," she says, "because it is not going to solve the longer-term problem."

It's hard to see how WellPoint could be to blame for surging health spending, Mrs. Braly says, when 85 cents out of every premium dollar or more "is paid out in the actual cost of care, doctors, hospitals, suppliers, drugs, devices." Confiscating the 2009 profits of the entire insurance industry would pay for two days of U.S. health care.

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