House lawmakers target health insurer CEOs

WASHINGTON Tue Mar 2, 2010 4:00pm EST

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democratic lawmakers put new pressure on the health insurance industry on Tuesday, asking the chief executives of the nation's four largest for-profit health insurers to testify at a public hearing later this month.

In letters to the CEOs of Aetna Inc, Humana Inc, WellPoint Inc and UnitedHealth Group Inc, the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee also sought internal documents and other information about coverage for individuals in the health insurance market.

The letters were released one day before U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to lay out his plan for moving ahead on stalled healthcare reform legislation amid an intensifying focus on the multibillion health insurance industry.

The CEOs of Aetna, WellPoint, UnitedHealth and Cigna Corp were also scheduled to meet with U.S. Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Wednesday, but the meeting has been postponed until Thursday and will be held at the White House.

Health insurers have become Democrats' main target in the fight to overhaul the nation's $2.5 trillion healthcare system. Legislation stalled in Congress aims to expand access to health insurance for tens of millions of people while ending industry practices such as denying coverage for those with pre-existing conditions.

In a statement to congressional leaders on Tuesday, Obama said Democrats and Republicans agreed on the need to reform the health insurance market -- such as allowing small groups and individuals to band together to boost their buying power -- but remained at odds over how to oversee the industry.

"I believe we must insist on some common-sense rules of the road to hold insurance companies accountable for the decisions they make to raise premiums and deny coverage," Obama wrote. "I don't believe we can afford to leave life-and-death decisions about health care for America's families to the discretion of insurance company executives alone."

Democratic lawmakers are spotlighting insurer practices in the individual market in the wake of double-digit increases -- in some cases nearly 40 percent -- for customers who buy their own insurance rather than have healthcare coverage through their employer or government programs.

In their letters, House committee Chairman Henry Waxman and Representative Bart Stupak asked the executives to tell the committee by Friday whether they will testify voluntarily at the March 23 hearing.

Specifically, the Democrats want details "about claim denials related to pre-existing conditions and company policies related to coverage of maternity care in the individual health insurance market," they said in a statement on their website.

WellPoint received the committee letter and will respond to the lawmakers, spokeswoman Kristin Binns said. Aetna spokesman David Carter had no comment. Both said they could not confirm whether their CEOs agreed to meet with Sebelius Thursday.

Representatives for Cigna, Humana and UnitedHealth did not respond to requests for comment.

The letters are posted online at tinyurl.com/yhybpw6.

Shares of health insurers were up in late afternoon trading. The Morgan Stanley Healthcare Payor Index was up 1 percent while the S&P Managed Healthcare Index was near flat.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey. Editing by Robert MacMillan)