A California-based consumer group is asking the state’s attorney general, Jerry Brown, to investigate health insurance companies that have asked their employees to lobby against healthcare reform.
Consumer Watchdog singled out UnitedHealthcare and WellPoint/Anthem for their national campaigns to help employees write and speak out against health reform, including at town hall meetings. The group charges that the insurers’ actions are “almost certainly illegal under the California Labor Code.” Consumer Watchdog research director Judy Dugan said California’s employee protections “against coerced participation in politics are the strongest in the nation.”
“Both companies are urging their employees to lobby members of Congress and offering corporate assistance in doing so, including talking points and even the placing of phone calls for the employees,” Consumer Watchdog wrote in its letter to Brown.
“WellPoint and UnitedHealthcare are no doubt tracking which employees respond to their demands,” Dugan said in a statement. “To call such action ‘voluntary’ defies common sense.”
The Wall Street Journal reported in August that the health insurance industry has been sending thousands of employees to town hall meetings and other forums to petition members of Congress to not support the public insurance option. America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) also issued a “Town Hall Tips” that warns health insurance employees who attend the meetings to expect harsh criticism directed at them and asks employees to remain calm and not yell at the elected officials. Robert Zirkelbach, AHIP’s director of strategic communications, told the paper that about 50,000 employees have written letters and made phone calls to politicians or attended town hall meetings.
Consumer Watchdog alleges that these actions by the insurers violate Sections 1101 and 1102 in the state’s Labor Code, which forbid companies from preventing employees from taking part in politics or directing them in political activities.
Although UnitedHealthcare labeled employee participation as “voluntary,” Consumer Watchdog said the company was able to “monitor compliance,” and its “instruction to take action on company time override any such disclaimer.”
The health insurers’ efforts are merely a way for them to squelch health reform, Dugan said.
“These companies are intent on preserving their profitability, wastefulness, and inefficiency, at the cost of taxpayers and patients,” said Dugan. “Now, in addition to their multimillion-dollar lobbying campaigns in Washington, they are enlisting their tens of thousands of employees to lobby as individuals.”
The health insurance industry has been working cooperatively on health reform to “advance bipartisan, comprehensive healthcare reform” and has proposed guaranteed coverage, eliminating the preexisting condition exclusion, and an individual mandate to require all Americans to have insurance, according to AHIP.
“The men and women in our community are proud of the work they are doing every day to help make the healthcare system better.They want to be constructive participants in the healthcare reform discussions, and they have a right to have their voices heard,” Dugan said.
In response to the charges, UnitedHealth Group said in a statement that it is proud of its employees’ involvement in the healthcare reform debate and it has not encouraged employees to attend anti–health reform rallies:
We have stressed repeatedly that we strongly support bipartisan reform efforts to modernize healthcare and improve access to quality care on a sustainable basis for all Americans. We have made information available to employees for them to participate, voluntarily,only in publicly announced Congressional town hall meetings, or to write or call their elected officials. As our CEO wrote to all employees, “We encourage you to continue to lend your practical know-how and point of view to the healthcare reform debate, as always, in a respectful and collegial manner that elevates the discussion and that is consistent with the social values we hold as a company. Our mission is to help people live healthier lives. To do that, we know we have to listen closely to the people we serve and work together with them … We must remain mindful to bring that same spirit of service, respect, and cooperation to this important public discussion.”
When contacted for a statement, WellPoint responded, “WellPoint has not been contacted by the California attorney general and has not seen any complaint, therefore we cannot respond to any questions at this time. We believe it is important and permissible to provide up-to-date information about health reform to our associates.”
California Labor Code Section 1101–1102
1101. No employer shall make, adopt, or enforce any rule, regulation, or policy:
(a) Forbidding or preventing employees from engaging or participating in politics or from becoming candidates for public office
(b) Controlling or directing or tending to control or direct the political activities or affiliations of employees
1102. No employer shall coerce or influence or attempt to coerce or influence his employees through or by means of threat of discharge or loss of employment to adopt or follow or refrain from adopting or following any particular course or line of political action or political activity.