Monday, June 25, 2012

Huge Insurance Company WellPoint Settles Once Again, Providing a Window On the Ethical Questions Its Birth Presented

Another month, another question about the ethical conduct of for-profit insurance giant WellPoint. 

WellPoint Settles Allegations its Predecessor Anthem Cheated its Former Policy-Holders

This time the issue was how the company treated people insured by its now Anthem subsidiary a long time ago.  Here is the Reuters version:
Health insurer WellPoint Inc has agreed to pay $90 million to settle a class-action lawsuit against its Anthem unit over accusations the company did not fairly compensate former members when Anthem was converted from a mutual company into a stock company.

The Indianapolis Star noted:
WellPoint had fought the lawsuit for seven years in court.

The lawsuit alleged that WellPoint's Anthem subsidiary underpaid policyholders who opted to receive cash instead of stock when the Blue Cross-Blue Shield franchisee converted in 2001 into a stock company.

Of course, a WellPoint spokesman denied the company had done anything wrong, per Reuters,
Anthem spokeswoman Kristin Binns said in an e-mailed statement.

'We continue to believe that in all ways the company acted appropriately and in the best interests of its former members,...'
The Historic Context: the Conversion of Non-Profit Health Insurers into For-Profit Corporations

This may seem very dry and only of historical interest, but consider the historical context. Per Wendell Potter's Deadly Spin, after the Clinton administration's failed attempt at health reform, leaders of previously non-profit Blue Cross and Blue Shield insurance plans saw a new opportunity. In the mid-1990s,
the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association took a little-noticed but monumental step. The trade group, a bastion of non-profit health insurers that included the founders of the modern health insurance system, modified its bylaws to permit members to convert into public-stock companies.

Potter opined about the executives' main motivation for conversion to for-profit status, and then consolidation of the resulting companies,
They would earn bigger pay packages for managing larger businesses, and if they could convert them to for-profit companies, they would earn even more.

Fourteen Blue Cross plans, most of which dominated their state-wide markets, converted from nonprofits to for-profits, and by 2004 all fourteen wound up as wholly owned subsidiaries of WellPoint....
The Anthem Demutualization as a Step to WellPoint Executives' Enrichment

Anthem began as a non-profit insurance company, Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Indiana. Its hired managers first converted it into a mutual insurance company, a company that was owned by its policy-holders, and hence somewhat a non-profit in spirit. Then the executives started to acquire other formerly non-profit Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans. Then they converted the mutual insurance company into a pure for-profit. The for-profit Anthem eventually acquired WellPoint, taking that company's name. The resulting company then had become the biggest for-profit US health care insurer. In 2003, as the acquisition of WellPoint was pending, the Indianapolis Star reported:
The top executive at Anthem Inc. will receive a $42.5 million stock-and-cash award for guiding the company as it became the state's largest firm and now stands to become the nation's largest health benefits company.

Larry C. Glasscock will receive the merit-based performance award over the next three years on top of his salary, bonus and other compensation of $3.73 million last year. It's the most compensation Glasscock has received since he became the company's chief executive in 1999 and helped convert it to a publicly traded concern in 2001

Award amounts of $16 million each went to Glasscock's two highest-ranking associates: executive vice presidents David R. Frick, an attorney and former Indianapolis deputy mayor, and Michael L. Smith, a former chief executive of moving company Mayflower Group.

In addition, the president of Anthem Midwest, Keith R. Faller, will get a stock-and-cash award of $11.9 million, while Anthem Southeast President Thomas G. Snead Jr. got $4.36 million.

The allegation that the company's hired managers failed to adequately reimburse policy-holders for the policy-owners' ownership interests in the mutual version of Anthem was the basis of the law-suit that was just settled. The Anthem demutualization was a key step in the formation of the WellPoint behemoth. Its creation was the rationale to make the executives listed above rich. The allegations made in the lawsuit just settled suggest that they earned these huge windfalls on the backs of the policy-holders who at one point thought it was their company, and formerly thought that their insurer was a benign non-profit organization.

A Continuing Record of Ethical Misadventures

Thus, the lawsuit just settled suggests that WellPoint was born in ethically questionable circumstances, and that its creation served more to enrich its hired executives, who may have started as hired leaders of mission-oriented non-profit organizations. So in retrospect maybe it is not so surprising that WellPoint's leadership has continued to generate a series of ethical questions.

Since we began Health Care Renewal, we have noted that 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 (built 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).
  • management was accused of hiding the company's political contributions from the company's own stock-holders (see 2012 posts here and here).
Meanwhile, top hired managers have continued to draw bloated compensation from the company.  For example, as we noted here, current WellPoint CEO Angela Braly got $13.2 million compensation, and received an additional $6.9 million from newly vested restricted stock units in 2011, despite falling company earnings.

Summary: A Company Too Big to Manage Except to Enrich Its Executives

Thus, we have seen an amazing string of incidents suggesting that company leadership has consistently put short-term revenues, and the resulting exaggerated management compensation, before stock-holders' interests, and before patients' interests.  Yet this pattern, so plain above, has largely not been assembled from its component pieces in public other than on Health Care Renewal.  Lack of perception of this pattern may explain why this incredible compilation of ethical missteps has failed to generate any calls for massive revisions in how this company is lead and governed, or perhaps calls to dismantle such a large for-profit company as unmanageable except as a source of nearly unlimited dollars for the enrichment of its top insiders.

True health care reform would require the leaders of health care organizations to uphold the health care mission ahead of their own self-interest, and to be accountable to the organizations' owners, when they exist, and to patients and the public at large.

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