Sebelius Dials Back Toughest Rhetoric on Health Care Insurers

Mar 10, 2010 12:52pm

ABC News' Teddy Davis and Matt Loffman report: Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius just finished talking to the health insurance industry's annual policy conference at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Washington, DC.

Reporters were waiting for her to deliver the toughest portion of the remarks contained in the excerpts of that the White House provided journalists before the speech. But it didn't happen.

Instead, she dialed back the rhetoric a bit in the hopes of getting insurers back to the health care negotiating table.

Sebelius was addressing the insurance industry just one day after thousands of liberal activists protested the conference, threatening to arrest the insurance executives for industry practices.

According to the White House-provided excerpts, Sebelius was planning to say: "You can choose to take the millions of dollars you have stored away for your next round of ads to kill meaningful reform, and use them to start giving Americans some relief from their skyrocketing premiums."

Instead, Sebelius actually said: "So there's another choice: I hope that you will take the assets that you have, the influence, the bully pulpit that you have and use it to start calling for comprehensive reform to pass. Start looking at giving Americans some relief with market strategies from those who are facing skyrocketing premiums."

While the message was broadly similar, the HHS Secretary altered her remarks in such a way that they no longer directly linked the money spent on television ads with the call for consumer relief.

Sebelius struck the conciliatory tone early in her speech.

At the top of her remarks, Sebelius said, "I am not here to villify the hard working employees of insurance companies but I do have two requests going forward …. Work with us … Help us pass comprehensive health care reform."

At the close of her speech, Sebelius once again urged the insurance industry to come back to the table.

"It's not too late to work on this issue together," said Sebelius.

During a press conference which followed the Sebelius speech, Karen Ignagni, the head of the health insurance industry's trade group, said that she appreciated the Secretary's remarks.

'We can move from villification to problem solving," said Ignagni.

"I appreciated what the Secretary said. She acknowledged the concerns that the working men and women of our industry have had since July when the villification campaign began. I know that our members appreciated her acknowledging concerns that they must have — the working men and women — in our industry — the backbones of their communities — who are trying to do a good job everyday."

While Ignagni appreciated Sebelius's conciliatory tone, the insurance industry head still voiced concerns about the Obama administration's contention that it has adopted every cost control mechanism minus the public option.

Ignagni said that the insurance industry would move quickly to detail the cost control mechanisms missing from the legislation and plans to provide those to the administration, Congress, and members of the media.

Ignagni reiterated that one of the industry's chief complaints is that the individual mandate is not strong enough to ensure that everyone is compelled to obtain insurance.

On the question of profits, Ignagni said the insurance industry is happy to talk about profits because she maintains that they are low compared to other health care stakeholders.

"Other elements of the health care stakeholder community are 15-25 percent profits. Our average is 3.2 Were happy to have a discussion of profits," said Ignagni. 

Ignagni added that it's important for the industry to be in the black – not the red – so that the United States does not face "hundreds of AIGs."

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