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Citizens Confront Wellpoint: Giant Insurer a Poster-Child for Abusive Practices

The action is part of a wave of protests sweeping over big insurers opposing health reform.

Citizens will pay a visit today to WellPoint's Indianapolis headquarters to protest the giant insurance company's abusive practices and its opposition to real health care reform.

The rally is one of a nationwide wave of protests today in about 150 cities -- including events outside the Cigna headquarters in Philadelphia and the United Health Group headquarters in Minneapolis -- to highlight the private health insurance industry's misdeeds and to call for reform that guarantees good, affordable health care and includes the choice of a strong national public health insurance option.

Activists also plan to rally in Milwaukee today, where WellPoint CEO Angela Braly will deliver the keynote speech at Marquette University's annual Business Leaders Forum luncheon at the Alumni Memorial Union on campus.

The Los Angeles rally will target WellPoint's California subsidiary, Anthem Blue Cross, whose offices are located at 801 S. Figueroa St., starting at 11 am.

The national day of protest is sponsored by Health Care for America Now (HCAN), a broad coalition of community and religious groups, unions, MoveOn.Org, and others. HCAN expects that today's events, and those in subsequent weeks, will re-energize a grassroots movement and push Congress -- including several conservative Senate Democrats now resisting a public option -- to enact significant reform.

WellPoint, the nation's largest health insurance company in terms of membership, has become one of the poster children for why reform is needed.

With 35 million customers, one of every nine Americans is a member of a WellPoint health plan. Its annual sales of $60 billion netted corporate profits of $2.5 billion last year.

WellPoint is one of the insurance industry giants leading the charge against President Barack Obama's plan to create a "public option" -- essentially an expansion of Medicare for working families -- to create more competition and give consumers more choices.

Ironically, WellPoint is one of a handful of insurance companies that have a virtual iron grip on the insurance market in almost every state. The American Medical Association reports that 94 percent of insurance markets in more than 300 metropolitan areas are now highly concentrated. WellPoint runs Blue Cross-Blue Shield plans in 14 states. In Maine, for example, WellPoint controls 78% of the health insurance market. It dominates the market in Missouri, with 68% of the business, as well as in its home state of Indiana (60%), Georgia (61%), New Hampshire (51%), Kentucky (59%), Connecticut (55%), Virginia (50%), Ohio (41%, with the next largest company garnering only 17% of the market), and Colorado (with 29%, larger than runner-up United Health Group, with 24% of market share). In New York and California, WellPoint ranks second, with 21% and 20% of the health insurance market, respectively, in those two huge states.

These near-monopolistic conditions -- where one or two companies dominate the insurance market -- allow big corporations like WellPoint to drive up premiums, restrict coverage, and take advantage of consumers. Nationwide, health insurance premiums have been rising much faster than family incomes. No wonder WellPoint wants to quash potential competition from a public option.

To thwart such competition, and to limit government regulation of its practices, WellPoint has spent millions of dollars -- dollars it gets from the families and businesses paying sky-high premiums -- to wield political influence.

According to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, WellPoint employees and associates have contributed more than $922,000 to federal political campaigns over the past two and a half years. And the corporation has spent $7.8 million lobbying Washington policymakers over the same time period.

Not surprisingly, these legal bribes aren't given out randomly. The top recipients are key members of the Senate and House with influence over health care policy, including Senator Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and a leading opponent of the "public option" in health care reform.

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