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Stop for-profit insurers from taking over our health care

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Stop for-profit insurers from taking over our health care

Jun 12, 2024 | 7:00 am ET
By Aija Nemer-Aanerud Rose Roach
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Stop for-profit insurers from taking over our health care
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Photo illustration by Getty Images.

No one’s health should be held hostage by private companies that reward investors with the money we pay for care. Yet that’s exactly what UnitedHealth Group and other for-profit insurers do every day, all across the country. And they will keep doing it until we stop them. 

Private insurers deny and delay care to hundreds of millions of policyholders every year. Why? To boost profits. They force people like you and me to wait or die while their executives and shareholders get rich. They’d rather pay penalties than pay for care when doctors say we need it. 

That’s why we celebrate Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor lawmakers’ recent vote to ban for-profit insurers from offering HMO policies through Medicaid and the State Employee Group Insurance Program. This bold move sets an example for the nation and partially restores Minnesota’s longstanding ban on for-profit HMOs.

As long as we allow private insurers to find new ways to extract profits from health care, they will. Minnesota should lead the nation, and fully ban for-profit insurers from the state. 

Minnesotans have long agreed that for-profit insurers should never be allowed to decide whether we live or die. That’s why, for 40 years, we banned for-profit HMOs from offering policies here. Then in 2017, the Republican-controlled Legislature allowed for-profit health insurance corporations to offer HMO services under the guise that doing so would benefit patients, even though they would have to charge more or deliver less services to meet their legal obligation to maximize profit for their shareholders. Private, for-profit companies like UnitedHealth, Humana and Aetna have been chomping at the bit to expand their involvement in Minnesota’s public programs like they’ve already done with Medicare Advantage.

From Minnesota-based UnitedHealth to Connecticut-based Aetna and other large insurers across the country, Medicare Advantage and Medicaid managed care programs have proven to be huge profit centers for health insurers, which is why they want to expand into Minnesota’s public health programs as well. 

The U.S. Department of Labor sued a UnitedHealth subsidiary last July for wrongfully denying thousands of claims, and they were sued again in November for using faulty artificial intelligence to deny coverage for Medicare patients. They use data analytics to cut reimbursements to the bone, which helps UnitedHealth keep an extra $1 billion in fees every year, according to reporting in the New York Times. Then they sue policyholders — Allina even created a subsidiary to go after its own members. 

Who gets hurt when private insurers deny claims? We all do. Doctors, nurses and people who need care are all increasingly fed up. That’s why we recently risked arrest in a peaceful protest at UnitedHealth’s headquarters to demand they stop these denials of care, along with People’s Action members who came from all across the country and allies from the Minnesota Nurses Association, the AFL-CIO Retirees, Physicians for a National Health Plan, Healthcare for All Minnesota, Be A Hero and the Labor Campaign for Single Payer. We then confronted UnitedHealth’s CEO — Sir Andrew Witty — on Capitol Hill, where he was called to testify to Congress about a data breach at a UnitedHealth subsidiary, Change Healthcare, which violated the personal data of as many as 152 million people. 

This outage disrupted care for patients at 74% of hospitals nationwide, as many providers were forced to stop processing or switch to paper claims, which can take six months to approve. For Witty and UnitedHealth, this disruption was just another day at the office — one more opportunity to collect premiums while they delay and deny care. 

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison was right to oppose UnitedHealth’s takeover of Change Healthcare in 2022, recognizing the risks to our health if we allow private insurers to become “too big to fail.” Private insurers like UnitedHealth, which took in $22.3 billion in profit last year alone, are already too big, and they fail to provide care when we need it most. 

While the new ban blocks Minnesota’s Department of Human Services from awarding contracts to for-profit HMOs and prevents these companies from offering new policies to state employees, HMOs run by UnitedHealth, Humana and Allina Health Aetna are still able to offer plans to groups and individuals, including through Medicare Advantage.

Minnesotans have an opportunity to lead the nation by telling for-profit insurers that their greed stops here. Our lives are at stake. That’s why we must prevent private insurers from taking a bigger bite of our health care, before it’s too late.