7:06am

Thu December 9, 2010
Shots - Health News Blog

In Breakaway, Big Health Insurers Seek To Boost Washington Clout

Five of the nation's largest health insurance companies are looking to build their own inside-the-Beltway coalition to influence implementation of the new health law and congressional efforts to change it.

The companies – Aetna, Cigna, Humana, UnitedHealthcare and WellPoint -- are shopping around Washington for a public relations firm to represent them, according to a source familiar with their work. Public Strategies and APCO Worldwide are among PR firms that have spoken with the insurers, the source said.

"They plan to go public," the person said. "They spent a ton of money [in 2009 on lobbying and the election] and liked being influential and they don’t want that to go away."

For months there have been rumors the companies might abandon their trade group, America's Health Insurance Plans. Industry sources say they aren't.

But what exactly the group of five companies hopes to achieve isn't entirely clear. Humana's spokesman would only say that it doesn't plan to leave AHIP. Officials with the other four companies couldn't be reached immediately.

AHIP's CEO Karen Ignagni declined to comment on the five insurers forming their own coalition.

In November, Cigna CEO David Cordani and Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini both publicly stated at a Reuters Health Summit that they oppose halting  implementing federal law overhauling the health system. They said the law could be improved, however.

Several industry observers said the companies want their own "subcommittee" within AHIP to exert more influence on the group’s political and policy choices in 2011. "I think some of the companies felt the small and non-profit company interests were getting more attention within AHIP and they wanted to make sure their interests were considered too," said one health insurance executive whose company is a member of AHIP.

AHIP's political action committee donations tilted heavily to Republicans in the 2010 election cycle, with 59 percent of its $201,000 in direct PAC contributions going to GOP congressional candidates and 40 percent to Democrats, according to a Center for Responsive Politics analysis of Federal Election Commission records, as of Dec. 8.

As recently disclosed tax documents show, AHIP quietly gave $86.2 million to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which became one of the loudest opponents of the Democrats’ health care plans.

Even as the insurers work to build relationships with Republicans, they are in a delicate political situation. The Democrats still run the Senate and the White House and the health law appears safe from repeal at least until after the next presidential election in 2012.

So insurers don't want to become political targets of congressional Democrats and the Obama administration, said Chris Jennings, president of Jennings Policy Strategies. They risk "more aggressive implementation [of the law] in ways they don’t want to see, so they have to be careful." Copyright 2011 Kaiser Health News. To see more, visit http://www.kaiserhealthnews.org/.