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House Panel Approves Curbs for Insurers’ Antitrust Exemptions

The House approved a bill on Wednesday that would limit the health insurance industry's exemption from federal antitrust laws. Betty Ann Bowser and Judy Woodruff report.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And still to come on the "NewsHour" tonight: a religious revival in Indonesia; following the stimulus money; and poet Sherman Alexie.

    That follows the latest on health care reform, tonight's focus, the insurance industry.

    "NewsHour" correspondent Betty Ann Bowser reports for our Health Unit, a partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

  • PROTESTER:

    What do we want?

  • PROTESTERS:

    Health care!

  • PROTESTER:

    When do we want it?

  • PROTESTERS:

    Now!

  • BETTY ANN BOWSER:

    Protesters created another headache today for the insurance industry, rallying outside the Washington hotel where the annual meeting of the industry's state lobbyists took place.

  • PROTESTERS:

    People over profit!

  • BETTY ANN BOWSER:

    President Obama and Democrats in Congress are also cranking up the pressure on insurers.

  • U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:

    It's smoke and mirrors.

  • BETTY ANN BOWSER:

    On Saturday, the president took them to task during his weekly radio address.

  • BARACK OBAMA:

    Every time we get close to passing reform, the insurance companies produce these phony studies as a prescription and say, take one of these and call us in a decade.

    Well, not this time. The fact is, the insurance industry is making this last-ditch effort to stop reform, even as costs continue to rise and our health care dollars continue to be poured into their profits, bonuses, and administrative costs that do nothing to make us healthy, that often actually go toward figuring out how to avoid covering people.

  • BETTY ANN BOWSER:

    The study the president was referring to was the insurance industry's 11th-hour attack on the Senate Finance Committee's health care reform bill last week.

    It came in the form of a report paid for by its lobbying trade group that said the Finance Committee proposal would increase the cost of private insurance coverage for individuals, families, and businesses faster and higher than under the current system.

    Yesterday, the House Judiciary Committee voted to strip the insurance industry's exemption from federal antitrust regulations. That's a protection insurance companies have had for more than 60 years. And a similar bill is also under consideration in the Senate.

    The 1945 McCarran-Ferguson Act exempts the business of insurance from antitrust laws and leaves states to regulate the industry. The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Democrat Patrick Leahy, is sponsoring legislation in the Senate.

  • SEN. PATRICK LEAHY, D-Vt:

    Virtually every company in America has to follow the antitrust rules. They can't conspire to set prices and cut out competition. There's one exception, in all the industries in America, one exception: health insurance.

    And they can get together, without violating the antitrust laws. They can do what they want in carving up markets without getting involved in the antitrust laws. All I'm saying, if the law applies to everybody else, it should apply to them.

  • BETTY ANN BOWSER:

    In a letter to sponsors of the legislation, the top lobbyist for the insurance industry Karen Ignagni, said: "We believe that health insurers have not been engaging in anti-competitive conduct, and that McCarran-Ferguson does not provide a shield for such conduct. Thus, the bills attempt to remedy a problem that does not exist."

  • NARRATOR:

    Health insurance companies made $25 billion in profits last year.

  • BETTY ANN BOWSER:

    Today, health care reform groups launched their attack on health insurers in a new ad campaign.

  • NARRATOR:

    … report full of lies, trying to influence Congress to kill health care reform.

  • BETTY ANN BOWSER:

    Democrats in both the House and Senate said they may include the antitrust legislation in health care overhaul bills under consideration.