This week, the Los Angeles Times recounted what happened to a highly placed WellPoint executive who tried to improve the company's behavior.
Leslie Margolin was the public face of Anthem this year when it sought to raise individual insurance rates as much as 39%. The move triggered a backlash in Washington and Sacramento, where lawmakers accused Margolin and her corporate bosses at insurance giant WellPoint Inc. of trying to gouge unknowing policyholders.
Margolin, 55, generated headlines statewide when she was called to testify before angry lawmakers in the state capital. With television cameras rolling, the hearing's chairman stared her down and asked bluntly: 'Have you no shame?'
Now, speaking publicly for the first time since her departure, Margolin says she had been chagrined over the rate hikes for the last year and had worked internally to get Indianapolis-based WellPoint to rescind them or scale them back, and to apologize.
'I thought the rates were too high,' she said. 'I thought the impact on our membership was too significant.'
Margolin did not object to the rates in her Sacramento testimony this February. But in the months that followed, she repeatedly voiced her objections to WellPoint and in appearances outside the company, remarks that went largely unnoticed by the public.
In a March talk at Pepperdine University's business school, for instance, she told a gathering of students and business leaders that she wasn't responsible for rate increases she believed were ill-timed and ill-advised.
'We have impacted individual consumers in ways that were so significant for those individuals,' she said. 'And for that, I personally feel very, very sorry.'
As she made the Pepperdine appearance and others, Margolin said, she privately pressed WellPoint to abandon the company's get-tough approach to longtime adversaries — doctors and hospitals — and instead collaborate as part of a new 'healthcare transformation strategy' to cut costs and improve patient safety and the quality of care.
So what happened to Ms Margolin? Did she get a big raise and an award for doing the right thing? Is the moon made of green cheese?
In fact, here is what happens to a health insurance executive who says she is sorry for excessively high insurance rates:
Last month, WellPoint replaced her. At the time, Margolin said her departure was a mutual decision. Interviews with company insiders, insurance industry leaders and others familiar with the situation now make clear that she was pushed out.
'Her undoing was that she rocked the boat and wanted to do things a different way,' said one person familiar with the events who declined to be identified for fear of retribution. 'She wasn't a good corporate soldier.'
Margolin herself spoke cautiously about her resignation, but said: 'There is no question I needed to leave.'
In fact, her exit was quite inglorious:
Margolin vividly recalls her last day. Even though her Anthem team was exceeding its financial goals and membership numbers, she said, she was ushered from the doors of Anthem's Woodland Hills headquarters. She didn't have a chance to send a farewell message to her 400 employees.So it seems that being a top health insurance corporate executive means never admitting a mistake, and never, ever saying you are sorry.
In contrast, in the 2009 WellPoint Annual Report, CEO Angela Braly boasted:
As you can see throughout this report, we’re focused on making health benefits more affordable, improving access to care, and simplifying interactions with the delivery system. We believe that we have to favorably impact the value equation in health care while improving the experience of members, doctors, and employers.
So presumably at WellPoint, "making health benefits more affordable" means raising premiums 39%. As we mentioned earlier this year, for this and other bits of legerdemain, Angela Braly's 2009 compensation increased 51 percent to $13.1 million. This seems more like pay for propaganda than pay for performance.
In a post in the Dismounting Our Tiger blog, Edwin Lee addressed the origins of the BP oil spill by noting how most big corporations have come to promote leaders distinguished mainly for their careerism, tribal attitude, and disinclination to question received wisdom. He wrote that the result was promoting "mediocre, short term thinkers with similar work experiences, outlooks, temperaments and personal incentives. Disaster response, creative thinking and fundamental changes are outside their limited range of interests or competencies." Thus we can expect that at some point, WellPoint, and many similarly lead health care organizations, will create their own disasters. We can only hope that our health care system survives them.
Meanwhile, kudos to Ms Margolin for trying to put the interests of policy-holders and the public ahead of following the company line. If only more such people were able to lead health care organizations rather than being unceremoniously fired, we might have a fighting chance to have health care that really is high quality, affordable, and accessible.
PS - For those old enough to have been forced to watch Love Story, the original quote was "love means never having to say you're sorry."