Health-insurance companies are spending $1 million on ads to explain to Americans why their premiums keep going up and up. But the fact that they have a big stash of cash on hand to pay for the expensive ads answers the question.
With so much profit sloshing around, the insurance industry can dig into its treasure chest at any time. And it's doing just that to respond to President Obama's recent criticism of the largely unjustified climb in the cost of health insurance.
The insurers' ad campaign coincides with the White House's final push toward a vote in Congress on health reforms that would expand access to care and at least moderate the expected doubling of insurance premiums over the next decade. Obama is reminding middle-class citizens mostly content with their coverage that the price of letting health reform die will be staggering.
He brought that message to Arcadia University in Glenside. In shirtsleeves Monday, Obama fired up a crowd of 1,800 students and others. "We can't have a system that works better for the insurance companies" than policyholders, said Obama.
Was the president over the top? Not when you consider the statistics on insurance trends.
Health researchers at the respected Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation report that premiums last year for workplace insurance averaged an increase of 5 percent. That was at a time when prices in general fell nearly 1 percent. Looking back over the last decade, premiums went up nearly five times more than inflation.
A California health insurer recently posted premium increases of up to 39 percent for clients covered by individual policies.
While industry officials contend their rates merely reflect the increasing prices charged by hospitals, doctors, and drug companies, there is a good counterargument that the insurers' healthy profit margins prove consumers are overpaying. What's more, insurance companies are known for denying coverage or pricing people with chronic illnesses out of the marketplace.
That's why one of the strongest appeals of Obama's proposed reform is that it would set up national insurance exchanges where consumers could price-shop for health policies with guaranteed levels of coverage.
Presumably, insurers would sharpen their pencils as they compete for business on these exchanges. That's good news for consumers, who have seen their co-pays rise and coverage trimmed as their employers struggle with premium hikes.
There's more of that ahead. A survey released Thursday indicates that most big employers plan to saddle their workers with an even greater share of health-care costs next year. Even so, employers understand they need to provide decent benefits to attract and keep a top-quality workforce.
The president's plan offers the best opportunity available to slow down rising health-insurance costs. But it faces a minefield to get through a partisan Congress that is tripping over rules meant to make lawmaking easier. That's enough to make people sick.