The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is blocking two mergers, each of which would combine two of the five largest health insurance corporations in America. Aetna and Humana have plans to merge as do Anthem and Cigna. As a result, the big five health insurers would become three, reducing competition and choice for consumers, and, presumably, increasing the cost of health insurance. As I’ve written about in previous posts (here, here, and here), huge corporations with near monopoly power are bad for our economy and our democracy.

It appears in this case that Aetna is using its marketplace and political power to attempt to blackmail the federal government into approving its merger. On August 15, Aetna announced that it will withdraw from 11 of the 15 state health insurance marketplaces (called exchanges) in which it currently participates. These exchanges were created by the Affordable Care Act (aka Obama Care) and are where people without health insurance go to find and buy insurance.

Aetna claims it is dropping out of the exchanges because it cannot afford the losses it is experiencing on consumers from them. However, this is a dramatic reversal from the corporation’s statements four months ago when its CEO Mark Bertolini said that Aetna planned to stay in the exchanges and was “in a very good place to make this a sustainable program.” It appears the major reason for the shift was the DOJ’s decision to block its merger with Humana. [1]

Back in July, in a letter to the DOJ (obtained by The Huffington Post through a Freedom of Information Act request), Aetna CEO Bertolini stated that Aetna would reduce its participation in the health exchanges if the merger wasn’t approved. [2] Note that Bertolini would personally receive up to $131 million if the merger goes through [3] and that Aetna made a profit of $2.4 billion in 2015 on revenue of $60 billion.

The withdrawal of Aetna from the health insurance exchanges will force consumers to switch plans and will result in fewer choices and perhaps increased costs for Americans obtaining health insurance through the exchanges. Other health insurers, including regional Blue Cross Blue Shield plans, find their participation in the exchanges profitable or plan to continue their participation even if currently there are some losses. Obama Care has brought 20 million new consumers to the health insurers through its exchanges and subsidies.

Many people, including former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, are pointing to Aetna’s action as an example of the unhealthy amount of power that giant corporations have. More specifically, many health advocates are concerned about corporate power in the health care arena and are citing this as another example of corporations putting profit before people’s health. Senator Elizabeth Warren wrote that “The health of the American people should not be used as bargaining chips to force the government to bend to one giant company’s will.” [4]

The need for a publicly sponsored alternative (sometimes referred to as Medicare-for-All) to the private, generally for-profit, health insurers in the health insurance exchanges, is being put forth as the solution to counter the pitfalls of for-profit health insurance. [5]

Corporations shouldn’t have the power – which largely comes with size and near-monopoly market share – to effectively blackmail our federal, state, and local governments. These large health insurers and other huge corporations have amassed unhealthy amounts of power. Fortunately, the DOJ is blocking the two proposed mergers that would only make the situation worse.

The “laws” of economics (more accurately economic theory) assume that markets have multiple small suppliers of goods and services. Therefore, there would be real competition and consumer choice that could constrain market prices and companies’ behavior. Small is beautiful (to revive an old saying).

However, major, critical sectors of our economy have one or a very few large corporate suppliers. Aetna’s actions provide a poignant example of how corporate power can harm consumers, our economy, and democracy.

[1]       Bryan, B., 8/17/16, “Now we know the real reason Aetna bailed on Obamacare,” Business Insider (http://www.businessinsider.com/aetna-humana-merger-reason-for-leaving-obamacare-2016-8)

[2]       Cohn, J., & Young, J., 8/17/16, “Aetna CEO threatened Obamacare pullout if Feds opposed Humana merger,” The Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/aetna-obamacare-pullout-humana-merger_us_57b3d747e4b04ff883996a13)

[3]       Knight, N., 8/17/16, “Sanders: Aetna’s Obamacare threat shows what ‘corporate control looks like’,” Common Dreams (http://www.commondreams.org/news/2016/08/17/sanders-aetnas-obamacare-threat-shows-what-corporate-control-looks)

[4]       Knight, N., 8/17/16, see above

[5]       McCauley, L., 8/16/16, “Aetna’s greed proves that Medicare-for-All is the best solution,” Common Dreams (http://www.commondreams.org/news/2016/08/16/aetnas-greed-proves-medicare-all-best-solution)


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