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Tone Deaf

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What, you might ask yourself, would cause a health insurance company coming off a quarter where it had multi-billion dollar profits to slam individual policyholders with rate increases up to 39%?

Well, let’s see. 

Maybe the insurer is headquartered on Mars and is unaware that a debate to reform the health care system has been raging in the United States for the past year.  And maybe this insurer was unaware that this debate has witnessed health insurers taking more than their share of abuse.

Or maybe the insurer is headquartered in the U.S. but is in need of a gigantic corporate hearing aid to assist in overcoming a massive condition of tone deafness.

Or maybe the insurer is just plain arrogant and doesn’t give a hoot about how this plays out in the larger world.

OK, maybe it’s none of these.  Maybe there were good reasons for the move and let’s concede them all.  So, concede the point that those billions in profit were largely a one-shot deal arising from a sale of a business.

And concede that the state’s regulations and the recession were causing the insurer to lose money on its individual business.  And concede that medical costs are skyrocketing, leaving premiums breathless to catch up in many cases.

Even with all those valid reasons, I still have to ask what the impulse is that causes one to offer up oneself as a piñata.  For surely, the company, no matter how tone deaf, had to have had some inkling of the uproar its pricing actions would cause.

After experiencing a year of hearing insurers railed at for unrestrained increases in premiums that are crushing businesses and consumers, how on earth do you go ahead and up the ante for some customers by 39%?

Was the company really clueless enough to expect that politicians would pass up the opportunity to relaunch a crusade that was showing signs of flagging?  Do lions pass up a nice big chunk of red meat when it’s thrown their way?

So, here’s my advice to the CEO of the company.  Don’t blame your actuaries, who I’m sure had very good reasons for justifying these increases.  Do blame your PR people—they’re paid to know better and they let you down grievously.   

And do take some of the blame yourself.  You could have had enough courage to tell your shareholders that this was just not the time to become a poster child for the excesses of the health insurance business.

I certainly hope the rest of the business will take note of what happened here.  But it does make you wonder whether tone deafness has become so persistent a condition that insurers have stopped listening.