Thursday, August 20, 2009

A spokesman for the health insurance industry accused congressional Democrats on Wednesday of mounting a “fishing expedition,” as dozens of individual insurers weighed whether to honor a request for sensitive financial records sought in a House committee’s investigation.

Robert Zirkelbach, spokesman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, said top Democrats on House Energy and Commerce Committee hoped to “silence the health insurance industry and distract attention away from the fact that the American people are rejecting a government-run plan” as part of President Obama’s planned overhaul.

The harsh words come amid rising tensions between the industry and leading Democrats on Capitol Hill pushing their reform package. Mr. Zirkelbach said it would be up to individual companies to decide whether to turn the records over.

At least 52 insurance companies received the requests, part of an investigation into executive compensation and other business practices inside the industry.

A spokesman for Rep. Bart Stupak, Michigan Democrat, said Tuesday night that the letters had been sent to health insurers with $2 billion or more in annual premiums. He said the letters were not dispatched to companies in other industries, some of which have been airing television advertising in support of Mr. Obama’s health agenda.

The information request included records relating to compensation of highly paid employees, documents relating to companies’ premium income and claims payments and information on expenses stemming from any event held outside company facilities in the past 2 1/2 years.

The letters were signed by House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman, California Democrat, and Mr. Stupak, who heads a key subcommittee of the panel.

They wrote that the committee needed in the information because it was “examining executive compensation and other business practices in the health insurance industry.”

Spokesmen for three large insurance companies - Aetna, UnitedHealth Group Inc. and WellPoint Inc. - confirmed the firms had received the letters but declined to comment.

The letter requested the information be provided by early September. While companies are not under legal obligation to comply, the committee could respond to a refusal by voting to subpoena the information at a later date. House Democratic leaders hope to have a floor vote on a final health care reform proposal by the end of September.

Among the documents requested were records relating to compensation paid to any company executive earning more than $500,000 in any year from 2003 to 2008.

The requests were issued at a time when Mr. Obama’s health care proposal is under intense attack from Republicans and other critics, including the health insurance industry. Much of the opposition focuses on proposals for a taxpayer-funded public option to sell insurance in competition with private carriers.

Mr. Obama and other supporters of the public option argue it would help control costs and keep insurance companies honest by forcing them to grapple with competition.

Opponents say it gradually would undermine the present insurance structure, which is built around private insurers, and lead to a system controlled by the government.

The issue drew intense focus over the weekend, after top aides to Mr. Obama speculated aloud about the possibility that legislation might omit the government role in selling insurance.

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