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Aetna CEO: Public Insurance Option ‘Wrong Way to Go’

Efforts to overhaul the health care system would be damaged by creating a public option to compete with private insurers, Ron Williams, chief executive of Aetna Inc., the nation's third-largest health insurer, tells Judy Woodruff.

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    Last week, we heard from the head of a major hospital whose record for quality and care has been praised. Tonight, we get the views of a leading insurer.

    Aetna is the nation's third-largest health insurer. Its chief executive, Ron Williams, has met with President Obama and with lawmakers from both parties.

    Ron Williams, thank you very much for talking with us.

    RON WILLIAMS, chief executive officer, Aetna Inc.: Well, thank you for inviting me. It's a pleasure to be here.


    What is the main thing or things that you believe should be changed about the health care system in this country?


    Well, I think one of the things we have to do is we have to find a way to get and keep everyone covered with health insurance. And I think there are very specific things we can do to make the individual insurance market work better for those seeking individual insurance.

    I think the second critical thing is we have to slow down the rate of increase in health care services, and I think there are many ideas under discussion to really accomplish those two things.


    Well, one of the ideas very much out there — we just heard Kathleen Sebelius reiterate it — the president likes that public insurance option, despite signals to the contrary. You are on record as saying it's the wrong way to go. Why?


    Well, I think we think it's the wrong way to go because we believe that the changes that are being proposed in the individual insurance market will, in fact, address many of the fundamental problems that are legitimate and real issues in the health insurance market and the way the industry works.

    I think the other point I would make is that, when you have a government plan, you have in essence a player in the industry who is a participant in the market, but also is a regulator and a referee in the game. And we think that those two roles really don't work well.


    Now, President Obama has said that wouldn't be the case. In fact, he addressed that very comment that you made not very long ago, and he said there would be rules and that there would be a level playing field if the government were part of this.

    He went on to say, too, that, what do private insurers have to be afraid of? He said, if they're doing such a good job, why would the government be a threat in any way?


    Well, I believe that the whole debate about the government plan is really a diversion away from the central critical issue, which is, how do we get and keep everyone covered?

    I think we have 45 million people in the country who deserve the same kind of health care that you or I would expect to have. And I think, when we talk about the government plan, we really aren't focusing on how we make the market work.

    I think Aetna has been on record of saying that we should eliminate the use of health status or pre-existing conditions, that we should expect or require that everyone have health insurance. And I just say, "Let's get the conversation back to what we do about that."