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SUSAN BIGELOW

Here’s the sort of issue we run into in this country all the time: the state wants to help low-income residents get health insurance by giving them more subsidies, and wants to charge insurance companies fees to do it. But the business community, farmers, and other employers around the state are rallying against the plan, fearful that the insurance company will just pass the cost on to them.

They’re not wrong, either. That’s exactly what the insurance companies will do. Just another day in America, where wealthy insurance corporations, in exchange for being forced to help the poor get health care, pass the costs on to the middle class. In the end, health care gets more expensive for everyone, while the insurance companies continue to reap big profits (they’d be even bigger if not for profit caps instituted by Obamacare). Did I mention that the insurance companies can easily pay for this because a federal tax on them recently expired? They won’t, though, to no one’s surprise.

This is the sort of thing that people in other developed countries find mind-boggling, but we accept as normal. We’re not supposed to believe that we can change our system for the better, and any small moves government makes toward that end get met with a blizzard of opposition from the health insurance industry.

The state is also trying to create a public option to compete with health insurers, something the insurance industry desperately wants to avoid. They’ve been running ads against the public option pretty much everywhere (including this website).

A real, robust public option would be a good thing for Connecticut. It would give everyone a stable insurance choice that isn’t tied to employment, and isn’t run by a for-profit company more interested in its shareholders than in the people whose lives it holds in its hands.

Listen, if you’ve been following this column, you probably know how I feel about the health insurance companies and the people who run them. They’re not the business “barons” of the old days who were deeply invested in Hartford and the state. Mother Aetna does not love us, but would have traded us in for New York if she hadn’t been bought up by CVS. A smaller and smaller share of jobs in the state come from health insurers every decade as companies merge or try to find cheaper employees somewhere else.

The health insurance companies have proven over and over again that they feel they owe absolutely nothing to the state that’s sheltered, nurtured, and bent over backward for them since the 1850s. That means when it comes down to choosing between what they want and what’s good for our people, we have to go with the latter.

We need a new way of thinking about our relationship with health insurers.

Here’s a question: what do you call a company that provides something we all need, like electricity or water, at a cost to the consumer? Public utilities, right? We’re all familiar with them and how they work, because we interact with them all the time. In some places, utilities are actually public and state-owned, but around here we have a combination of public non-profits, like the Metropolitan District Commission, and private Fortune 500 companies with some state regulation and oversight, like Eversource. Some of these models work . . . less well than others. But what they have in common is the expectation that they serve the public good.

We ought to start thinking about health insurance companies, and the health care system in general, as a public utility. Health care is something we all need, and the health care system should exist for the public good.

If we started thinking of health insurance this way, it wouldn’t change much in practice. Not right away. But maybe it would help us get over the idea that the insurance companies are a business like any other. They aren’t. They are a part of a complex system that exists to provide life-saving health care to the people, not a maker of consumer goods or a seller of information.

Maybe then we’d be less afraid to regulate them, or go around them when necessary.

And maybe, when they try to divide the poor and the middle class by threatening rate hikes to cover fees that pay for subsidies, we won’t hesitate to tell them “no.” 

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.

Susan Bigelow

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.