Five of the nation's largest health insurance companies are taking a key step toward building 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 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. But industry sources say they aren’t.
What exactly the group 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 could not be immediately reached. In November, Cigna CEO David Cordani and Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini both publicly stated at a Reuters Health Summit that they are opposed to halting progress on implementing the health law, but thought the law could be improved.
Several industry observers said the companies want their own "subcommittee" within AHIP to influence 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. "I think this is just about normal tensions within trade associations."
Others speculated that the health insurers were seeking a way to reestablish ties with congressional Republicans, who were angered that the companies, via AHIP, worked with the Obama administration for much of 2009 on health care legislation. As recently disclosed 2009 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.
AHIP's CEO Karen Ignagni declined to comment on the five insurers forming their own coalition.
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.
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 is safe from repeal at least until after the next presidential election in 2012.
Chris Jennings, president of Jennings Policy Strategies, said insurers don't want to act in a way that will make them political targets by congressional Democrats and the Obama administration and risk "more aggressive implementation [of the law] in ways they don't want to see, so they have to be careful."