Stifling speech / Health Secretary wrong to threaten those who disagree with government

The Columbus Dispatch – September 19, 2010

On Sept. 9, Kathleen Sebelius, daughter of former Ohio Gov. John J. Gilligan and now secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, engaged in an act of political intimidation: She warned private health insurers that if they “falsely blame” “unjustified” rate increases on the administration’s massive overhaul of health care, they might be punished.

Sebelius says she’ll be keeping a list of insurers who are naughty — the naughty ones being those who exercise free speech by saying their rate increases are the result of the government’s health-care overhaul. These companies, Sebelius warns, might be excluded from government-created health-care-insurance exchanges that will be set up under the new law in 2014 and that will be the place where millions of Americans will have to go to seek coverage. In other words, Sebelius is telling insurers, “Shut up or we’ll deprive you of customers.”

Welcome to the brave new world of government-dominated health care.

The fact is, the health-care overhaul is going to cost plenty. Sebelius acknowledged in her letter that provisions of the law taking effect this month will raise insurance costs. These include mandates to insurers to eliminate lifetime coverage limits and exclusions for pre-existing conditions in children, to provide “free” preventive services and to allow children to remain on their parents’ health insurance until age 26.

As a result, across the country, insurers are submitting rate-increase requests to state insurance regulators, with increases ranging from 1 percent to more than 20 percent. Much of the variation reflects differences in the insurance plans; the health-care mandates will affect some insurance packages more than others.

But Sebelius is charging that some insurers are using the mandates as an excuse to gouge consumers. Government estimates and “some insurers’ estimates” find that mandates should raise premiums only 1 percent to

2 percent, Sebelius claims. Therefore, any insurer seeking more than that will be suspect.

But if any insurers are engaging in shifty arithmetic, they will be pikers compared with President Barack Obama and the Democratic majority in Congress that passed the health-care overhaul. The bill was sold with deceptive math: using double-counting and other accounting tricks; frontloading the income and delaying the payouts in order to low-ball the cost of the first 10 years; and projecting hundreds of billions of dollars of savings in Medicare that the president and lawmakers know will never happen.

The 1 percent to 2 percent increase that Sebelius cites invites suspicion that this, too, is more politically motivated low-balling. She knows a majority of Americans oppose the health-care bill, and this is a serious liability for Democrats running for election in November. This includes Democratic incumbent Mary Jo Kilroy in the 15th Congressional District. She voted for the overhaul, putting her at odds with the 61 percent of central Ohioans who either want the law repealed or changed, according to a recent Saperstein Associates survey.

Sebelius has the right to accuse insurers of gouging. She can propose more regulations to prevent price-gouging.

But she is going further: She is trying to silence those who dare to disagree with the government’s viewpoint by threatening them with punishment. That’s standard practice in some countries, but it has no place in the United States.