Photograph by Steven Higgs

Dr. Rob Stone will join other single-payer health advocates in calling on insurance giant WellPoint to return to nonprofit status at a rally at company headquarters in Indianapolis on May 18.

When it comes to health care reform, single-payer advocate Rob Stone, M.D., says, "We're still for it, and we're not done yet."

The need is undeniable. Over 46 million Americans are uninsured, and a recent study reported in the American Journal of Public Health showed that 45,000 die each year because they lack health insurance. Tens of millions are underinsured, able to afford coverage only with policies with gigantic deductibles and out-of-pocket expenses.

Of U.S. health care spending, 31 percent covers administrative costs, or overhead. Medicare, in comparison, spends only 3.1 percent on overhead. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, countries with universal health care spend about 50 percent of what we spend per capita and have superior health outcomes.

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Stone, an emergency physician at Bloomington Hospital, director of Hoosiers for a Commonsense Health Plan (HCHP) and board member of Physicians for a National Health Plan, is working on a two-pronged campaign for changing the health care status quo.

One is an "inside" approach, offering a resolution for the health insurance company Wellpoint stockholders to vote on. The resolution calls for WellPoint to study the feasibility of returning to its nonprofit status.

Several shareholders, including Stone, have successfully placed the resolution on WellPoint's proxy statement, released this week and to be voted on at WellPoint's annual stockholders' meeting on May 18 in Indianapolis.
"The resolution calls for WellPoint to study the feasibility of returning to its nonprofit status."
The resolution also asserts that "no country has achieved universal health care through for-profit health insurance. ... WellPoint was a nonprofit insurance company before it demutualized, raised capital through stock offerings, merged with, acquired, and demutualized other nonprofit Blue Cross/Blue Shield companies [in the early '90s]."

With its for-profit status, WellPoint has changed its focus from patient care to profits for its stockholders.

Hoosier health care activists are targeting WellPoint because it's the largest corporation in the health insurance industry and has headquarters in Indianapolis. Further, WellPoint is a leader in the industry in marketing high-deductible policies.

The resolution, which has been presented to the stockholders for a vote by proxy, needs to receive 3 percent of the votes for it to be considered for a second year. If it receives 10 percent of the votes the second year, it can be introduced third year.

The health insurance industry is vulnerable. Lately it's received negative publicity about policy cost increases. In her recent testimony on those increases before Congress, WellPoint's CEO, Angela Braly, whose salary is $9 million per year, left an unfavorable impression of the corporation. WellPoint's reputation has suffered also as a result of the negative publicity surrounding its efforts to oppose health care reform.

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Two, the "outside" approach, is divestment of stock from the for-profit health insurance industry as a whole. Investors can use divestment, the selling of stock and thus the opposite of investment, to protest particular corporate policies.
"With its for-profit status, WellPoint has changed its focus from patient care to profits for its stockholders."
"Divestment," according to Stone, "is an economic and political tool that puts political pressure on corporations to change their policies."

The idea for divesting from the health insurance industry originated with Kurt Edelman, from the Service Employees International Union, during an activists' conference call about the industry.

Divestment from the health care industry has, as its model, divestment from South Africa during its racist, apartheid regime. Then, divestment entailed persuading companies to cease doing business in South Africa in protest the regime.

Although health care activists' goal is complete divestment of stock in the publicly traded health insurance industry, in Stone's words, the industry is a "parasitic middleman that increases cost and complexity, with no value added."

The starting point is WellPoint. Last year a WellPoint shareholders' resolution calling on the company to divulge the pay given to executives almost passed, with 46% of the votes. It could pass this year, according to Stone.

One avenue Stone and his fellow activists are exploring is mutual funds that own stock in WellPoint. TIAA-CREF, in which many teachers and college professors have investments for their pensions, is the 12th largest stockholder in WellPoint and holds 5 million shares of Wellpoint, worth about $320 billion.

Stone figures people in the teaching profession are more likely than some others to be sympathetic to a divestment campaign. The aim is to weaken the health insurance industry, and academics can put pressure on their employers to divest.

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Single-payer advocates and proponents of a public option, as Stone says, are "let down, worn out and disappointed" in the current health care "reform." But he adds immediately, "The antidote to despair is action."
"The antidote to despair is action."
Stone said HCHP will release the resolution during a press conference at 11 a.m. on Wed., April 7, in front of WellPoint's headquarters on Monument Circle in Indianapolis. The public is welcome to attend.

Attending a rally in front of WellPoint headquarters at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, May 18, after WellPoint's annual stockholders meeting, is even more important, Stone said.

The point of the rally is to draw attention to WellPoint's current negative public relations and to build a campaign to expose the problems with for-profit health insurance.

At the rally singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer will perform, and the speakers will include Wendell Potter, a former vice president of communications for the health insurance company Cigna. He was in charge of running a campaign to discredit Michael Moore's film Sicko, but he switched sides in the health care debate after observing hundreds of people without health care wait for care at a free clinic in Appalachia.

Linda Greene can be reached at lgreene@bloomington.in.us.

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For more information
E-mail Rob Stone at rstone@hchp.info.