This article is part of a Nation series exposing the American Legislative Exchange Council, in collaboration with the Center For Media and Democracy. John Nichols introduces the series.
Days after President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law, I arrived at the spring 2010 meeting of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) in Denver, where a fellow consumer representative introduced me to one of the hundreds of industry lobbyists swarming the convention center. “She’s somebody we can work with,” he said, clearly convinced that she would deal with us in good faith, even if we might disagree on certain policy issues. Over the next several months, other consumer reps agreed that she really did seem to want to do what was right for patients, even if the organization that paid her salary often seemed to care more about profits than people.
I was skeptical. I knew from my two decades as an insurance company executive that the industry often conducts duplicitous charm offensives, assuring the public that insurers support consumer-focused reform while executives work surreptitiously to block any reform that might curtail profits. So I was not shocked when I found out that Joan Gardner, executive director of state services for the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association’s Office of Policy and Representation, had been keeping something important from us. As a leading member of ALEC’s Health and Human Services Task Force, she’d been helping write legislation designed to ensure that any healthcare reform implemented at the state level would benefit insurance companies far more than their policyholders. She was also leading an effort to recruit more dues-paying members to ALEC.
I learned of Gardner’s clandestine work when a reform advocate alerted me to a story about a resolution her ALEC committee had drafted in 2008 to forbid “government-mandated health care.” Apparently fearful that a bill would reach Obama’s desk that would allow states to establish single-payer systems, ALEC crafted the Freedom of Choice in Health Care Act, which, despite its Orwellian name, was written to deny the citizens of any state that passed it the freedom to set up such a system. By declaring that Congressional attempts to regulate health insurance at the federal level would be unconstitutional, it would effectively ban not only a federal single-payer proposal but also a federally created health insurance exchange and a federally operated public insurance option. ALEC has boasted that some forty-four states have introduced its Freedom of Choice in Health Care Act (which itself would not withstand a constitutional challenge). What it hasn’t acknowledged is that attempts to pass healthcare-nullification bills have failed in at least twenty-five states. Only eight states have passed the act so far.
Reviewing ALEC’s healthcare-related bills and resolutions from the past few years makes it clear that insurers realized early on that the best way to block the profit-threatening provisions of any federal reform would be to attack them at the state level through ALEC. With Democrats in control of both houses of Congress and the White House in 2009, insurers assumed some kind of healthcare reform was inevitable, so they adopted a strategy to shape rather than stop reform. Its top five goals became:
§ Keeping single-payer proposals off the table;
§ Ensuring that the final bill contain a clause requiring all Americans not eligible for an existing federal program to buy coverage from a private insurance company;
§ Preventing the new law from establishing a government-run plan (the “public option”) that would compete with private insurers;
§ Making sure that the reform law is implemented primarily at the state level, to keep the federal government from assuming any significant new oversight of private insurers’ business practices; and