Man says insurance agent encouraged lobbying against 'public option'by Ambar Espinoza, Minnesota Public Radio
Collegeville, Minn. — A Minnesota man says his mother's health insurance agent encouraged her to call her senators and lobby against the proposed health care reform.
As the health care reform debate heats up around the country, some health insurance companies are encouraging their members and employees to get involved in the discussion.
Some insurance companies have been lobbying against the public option, but the companies say they're not pressuring members to support any particular position. Yet, at least one independent Minnesota agent may have done just that.
Paul Jasmer of Collegeville recently received an e-mail from his 85-year-old mother that upset him. She told him she had gone to see her independent, authorized Blue Cross and Blue Shield agent in Willmar, where she lives. His mother had a simple question about her coverage, and the agent changed the conversation to the proposed government health insurance option.
"Then it sounds like, from reading the e-mail, that the agent then had the receptionist or the secretary provide her with the phone numbers of senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken and a message to convey to them, 'I want to register a no vote to the government health plan,'" Jasmer said.
Jasmer, a library technician at St. John's University, said his mother did what the agent encouraged her to do and called the senators the next day. She told him she was fearful she'd no longer have her Blue Cross and Blue Shield coverage with a public option in place.
"The health insurance agent exploited the fears of a vulnerable person and it was a way of prompting her to carry out his narrow interests by giving out those phone numbers and also I presume that statement," Jasmer said.
Jasmer questions whether insurance companies, particularly in rural Minnesota, are using their members to lobby their positions in Congress.
The insurance agent who serves Jasmer's mother declined an interview with MPR News. He denied encouraging anyone to call legislators and said he merely expresses his own opinions, and he does give clients the senators' contact information because it's public information.
"I think it's absolutely unethical to be doing that," said Art Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and the former director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota.
"The reason is very simple," he said. "There is a power differential between the patient and the doctor or, let's say, an insurance person. The client wants something."
Caplan said clients want to find out information about coverage, renewals, co-pays and more. So clients trust and rely on the insurance agent to be their advocate.
"And if you feel coerced or pressured in any way that you better agree with the politics or do what the person is telling you politically in order to get what you want, that's just absolutely coercive and wrong," Caplan said.
Caplan said there shouldn't be any lobbying or talk of politics with health care patients and clients. He said views on health care reform have no place during the delivery of services, even if patients and clients ask for those opinions.
"I think the right answer is, 'I'm happy to tell you, but not in the examining room, not in the dental chair, not in the business office. We'll talk about this once we get our work done, once we have our relationship done in terms of either my trying to sell you something, my trying to care for you, or my trying to diagnose you,'" Caplan said.
Caplan said he's heard of isolated incidents in which doctors try to lobby patients, and what happened to Paul Jasmer's mother also appears to be an isolated incident.
Philip Stalboerger is vice president of policy and legislative affairs at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota. He said the company shares only educational information about health care reform with agents and brokers. Stalboerger said the Willmar agent acted on his own.
"We have not asked our independent agents to contact members on our behalf or to contact legislators, or elected officials," Stalboerger said. "If agents are asking their customers to take any actions, it's not at the request of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota."
Stalboerger said the company does provide information on health care reform, as well as Blue Cross and Blue Shield's positions, on the company's Web site.
Another Minnesota insurer has a similar policy. Larry Bussey is director of corporate communications at Medica. He said Medica's approach is to keep employees informed about the progress of reform efforts at both the state and federal levels.
"We do get questions from our members and we are happy to respond to them when we get them, but as far as pushing a reform position either with employees or members, that's not something we are doing," Bussey said. "Our position is more of responding when we're asked questions and with our employees keeping them informed of what's going on."
Bussey said Medica has not taken positions on particular aspects of the bill, but the company does support trying to improve access and lower costs.
Neither Blue Cross and Blue Shield nor Medica has guidelines for independent insurance brokers on how to represent them. Bussey acknowledges that there's a risk clients may think the views of independent agents are the views of the insurance companies, but he stresses that independent agents represent themselves.
The organization that represents health insurance agents, the Minnesota Association of Health Underwriters (MAHU), said it hasn't directed its brokers to lobby for any positions with clients. MAHU also supports reform, but not the public option.
"And I can tell you that we have never sent out an e-mail or anything out to our members to call up their legislators to say, 'Vote no, vote, no, vote no," said Greg Datillo, the group's legislative chairman.
- All Things Considered, 08/28/2009, 5:20 p.m.