WellPoint protest signals shifting mood on rate-hike status quo

DENVER– Protesters camped outside the offices of WellPoint insurance in Zeckendorf Plaza Park downtown here this week to call attention to recent rate hikes put into effect in January by the company and now shocking customers across the state who are receiving their bloated bills.

Tent and sign at the camp-out WellPoint protest
Tent and sign at the camp-out WellPoint protest

Consumer complaints have been making their way back to the Colorado Division of Insurance since December, when customers apparently began to receive notice of the coming hikes. The Insurance Division has launched an investigation into the rate increases that will take about eight weeks to complete.

It reportedly took just 35 customer complaints to force the investigation. Dayle Axman, division supervisor of consumer affairs, said that 35 people on premium plans complained in December 2009 as compared to 3 who complained in 2008.

The Tuesday evening protest saw Zeckendorf Plaza filled with camping gear, lighted tents and perturbed citizens.

“We are camping out against big insurance,” said Serena Woods, Colorado communications director for the union activist group Change that Works. “WellPoint, the parent company for Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, is raising rates across the country. In Colorado those rates have gone up 33 percent.

“This protest is to show Anthem what’s happening on the ground. A 30 percent [increase] is just unsustainable. We’re talking about people having to make choices between groceries and health care.”

Sally Kweskin, spokesperson for Anthem Blue Cross-Blue Shield in Colorado, told the Independent that increases ranged from 3.8 percent to 33.2 percent with an average increase of 25.1 percent across policies offered in the state.

Woods said health care reform on the table in Washington will bring relief for families by at last doing something to rein in the rising medical costs.

Anthem covers over 870,000 people across the state. Colorado Insurance Commissioner Marcy Morrison said those consumers could be facing “significant harm” due to the raises and that has spurred her office to take action.

One of the hikes the division will be reviewing will be the 19.9 percent rate increase WellPoint levied on individual-market consumers, people not on employee plans, often freelancers, contract workers and people between jobs. WellPoint submitted the paperwork for the hike to the state in September, just weeks after politically heated health-reform town halls in the state made national news.

WellPoint CEO Angela Braly told a Congressional panel last month the rate increases it was instituting across the country were to make up for the ranks of healthy people who were dropping their insurance plans due to the recession.

U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman of California, where WellPoint raised rates by nearly 40 percent, suspected WellPoint wasn’t looking closely enough at its books. He referenced documents that demonstrated the company spent $39 million to pay 39 executives in 2008 and more than $27 million in executive getaways for the California branches alone over the last two years.

Woods said the protest didn’t draw a response from WellPoint executives. “They did send down a security guard to have a look at us,” she said. “He saw that we were a peaceful crowd.”

“Hopefully they see us and hear our voices and hopefully Congress does too, because that is what is really important and where change needs to happen.”

One protester said he was concerned that anti-reform Tea Party groups in Colorado had skewed the debate for ideological reasons. He felt the record had demonstrated that the only real way to achieve cost savings was through reform that included a health insurance public option to compete with the insurance companies.

Heather Kurland, of Boulder, said rate hikes had brought the reform debate home to her.

“I came down to join this protest to support the healthcare fight… When I found out that my health insurance rates had increased, I was like ‘Oh my god.’ I am one of those 800,000, and I’m pissed off now.”

She said that she will most likely drop her WellPoint plan and look for less expensive coverage.

Others at the rally said they were either going to cut back their coverage or drop it altogether because they simply couldn’t afford the increases.

“We are out here to say that this is not OK for Coloradans. Coloradans are suffering hard economic times and it is not fair for families to have to choose between health care coverage and food on the table,” Woods said.

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