Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Some of WellPoint's Owners (Stockholders) Allege Their Hired Executives Hid Political Contributions

We have frequently had reason to question the actions of WellPoint, the second largest for-profit health insurance company/ managed care organization in the US. 

Hidden Political Contributions

The Washington Post reported yet another one,
Health insurance giant WellPoint is the latest target of an increasingly aggressive campaign to force disclosure of corporate political and lobbying expenditures, including payments to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has become more active in elections over the past decade.

The WellPoint campaign, set to be formally announced Thursday by a coalition of activist investor groups, demands the resignation of two WellPoint board members, including Susan Bayh, the wife of former senator Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), for allegedly failing to oversee 'high risk political spending.'

The shareholder coalition cited WellPoint’s reluctance to answer questions about a transfer of $86 million from the health insurers trade association to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 2010, when the Chamber was actively opposing President Obama’s health-care overhaul. WellPoint is a member of the association, America’s Health Insurance Plans.

'This is the most egregious clandestine campaign funding we have ever seen,' said Michael Pryce-Jones of the CtW Investment Group, a labor-affiliated organization that is part of the shareholders’ coalition, referring to the payments from the trade association to the Chamber of Commerce.

At WellPoint, officials dismissed the notion that the company has been secretive about its political giving. On the contrary, spokeswoman Kristin Binns said, the firm discloses a great deal on its Web site.

'WellPoint complies with all disclosure requirements under federal, state and local laws,' she said, noting that the company publishes a 'very extensive' annual report on its political contributions.

That report does not include details of the sort of special payment that the shareholders coalition said WellPoint made to the health insurers association.

So, to summarize, WellPoint management is accused of spending tens of millions on political lobbying while hiding the spending from the public and from the company's nominal owners, that is, its stock-holders, by laundering it through a third party.

WellPoint's Sorry Ethical Record

This is just the latest questionable behavior by WellPoint we have discussed. Previously, we have noted incidents in which the company  ...

  • settled a RICO (racketeer influenced corrupt organization) law-suit in California over its alleged systematic attempts to withhold payments from physicians (see 2005 post here).
  • subsidiary New York Empire Blue Cross and Blue Shield misplaced a computer disc containing confidential information on 75,000 policy-holders (see 2007 story here).
  • California Anthem Blue Cross subsidiary cancelled individual insurance policies after their owners made large claims (a practices sometimes called rescission).  The company was ordered to pay a million dollar fine in early 2007 for this (see post here).  A state agency charged that some of these cancellations by another WellPoint subsidiary were improper (see post here).  WellPoint was alleged to have pushed physicians to look for patients' medical problems that would allow rescission (see post here).  It turned out that California never collected the 2007 fine noted above, allegedly because the state agency feared that WellPoint had become too powerful to take on (see post here). But in 2008, WellPoint agreed to pay more fines for its rescission practices (see post here).  In 2009, WellPoint executives were defiant about their continued intention to make rescission in hearings before the US congress (see post here).
  • California Blue Cross subsidiary allegedly attempted to get physicians to sign contracts whose confidentiality provisions would have prevented them from consulting lawyers about the contracts (see 2007 post here).
  • formerly acclaimed CFO was fired for unclear reasons, and then allegations from numerous women of what now might be called Tiger Woods-like activities surfaced (see post here).
  • announced that its investment portfolio was hardly immune from the losses prevalent in late 2008 (see post here).
  • was sanctioned by the US government in early 2009 for erroneously denying coverage to senior patients who subscribed to its Medicare drug plans (see 2009 post here).
  • settled charges that it had used a questionable data-base (builty by Ingenix, a subsidiary of ostensible WellPoint competitor UnitedHealth) to determine fees paid to physicians for out-of-network care (see 2009 post here). 
  • violated state law more than 700 times over a three-year period by failing to pay medical claims on time and misrepresenting policy provisions to customers, according to the California health insurance commissioner (see 2010 post here).
  • exposed confidential data from about 470,000 patients (see 2010 post here) and settled the resulting lawsuit in 2011 (see post here).
  • fired a top executive who publicly apologized for the company's excessively high charges (see 2010 post here).
  • California Anthem subsidiary was fined for systematically failing to make fair and timely payments to doctors and hospitals (see 2010 post here).
Yet despite this amazing recent record, WellPoint's top executives continue to prosper.  Earlier this month the Indianapolis Star reported that WellPoint Chair and CEO Angela,
Braly, 50, received 2011 compensation valued at $13.2 million, according to an Associated Press analysis of the Indianapolis company's annual proxy statement. That represents a 2 percent drop compared with 2010.

Braly, who has served as CEO for nearly five years, received a $1.1 million salary in 2011, a total that has stayed flat since 2008. Her compensation also included a performance-related bonus of nearly $1.9 million, stock and option awards totaling about $10 million and $216,279 in other compensation.

While her compensation dropped 2%,
WellPoint's earnings fell in the final three quarters of last year compared with 2010, capped by a 39 percent drop in the fourth quarter. In total, the insurer's earnings sank 8 percent compared with 2010.

The compensation above did not take into account that
Braly also made about $6.9 million last year mostly from previously awarded restricted stock units that had vested.


WellPoint CEO Angela Braly, like many of her fellow top hired managers of health care organizations, has become more wealthy every year despite her company's record of questionable conduct, and out of proportion to her company's financial results.

Based on illusory promises of greater efficiency that would benefit everyone, we have handed health care over to large, increasingly for-profit organizations, and we have handed control over these organizations to hired managers. We have made these managers accountable to no one, so they seem to run their organizations to benefit themselves first. Is it any surprise that organizations run to benefit top insiders do not much benefit patients' or the public's health?

Maybe the campaign by some of WellPoint's nominal owners to at least make what the company pays to influence politics transparent is a tiny first step to making the leadership of health care organizations accountable both to the organizations' owners (when they exist) and to patients and the public at large. Until they become so accountable, do not expect any improvements in health care cost, quality or access.

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