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Senate Judiciary Committee Considers Lifting Antitrust Exemption for Health Insurers

As the debate over health care reform rages on, there’s been almost no attention to the fact that health and medical malpractice insurance companies since 1945 have been exempt from the federal antitrust laws aimed at keeping every other private market competitive. The McCarran-Ferguson Act has allowed insurance companies to dominate markets and reap enormous profits, according to several witnesses who testified at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing this morning.

As Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) explained at the hearing, the health insurance industry — unlike any other private industry in the country — is allowed to engage in price fixing, bid rigging and market allocation, all of which would violate the law if any other sort of company did it. Last month Leahy introduced the Health Insurance Industry Antitrust Enforcement Act of 2009, which would repeal the antitrust exemption for health insurance and medical malpractice insurance providers. Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.) are co-sponsors.

Although Lawrence Powell, a professor at the University of Arkansas, testified on behalf of the Physician Insurers Association of America in support of continuing the antitrust exemption, even he struggled to explain why it makes sense. He repeatedly said that allowing insurers to share data on losses and costs of claims helps insurance companies price their services accurately and competitively. But as Leahy made clear in his questioning, his legislation would not prohibit such data-sharing. That led Powell to stumble and say that while he’s “not an attorney,” his understanding was that insurance companies would have to file a request to pool data, which would impose additional costs.

But Robert Hunter, Director of Insurance for the Consumer Federation of America and former Federal Insurance Administrator under Presidents Ford and Carter, saw it differently. In his view, the antitrust exemption, intended initially to be temporary but made permanent during closed-door conference committee sessions of Congress more than 50 years ago, must be repealed to overcome the insurance industry’s anticompetitive practices that have led to higher prices and reduced services. “It is high time that insurers played by the same rules of competition as virtually all other commercial enterprises operating in America‘s economy,” he testified.

According to Hunter, health insurance companies have been able to consistently pay less on claims by agreeing to lower the amounts they reimburse doctors and hospitals for services; adopting similar clauses in their contracts that limit their liability in unfair and abusive ways; agreeing to cut back coverage to certain places, and using similar claims processing systems designed to systematically underpay claims.

As Hunter testified, federal authorities have recommended eliminating or cutting back the antitrust exemption for health insurers and medical malpractice insurers on at least four different occasions after studying it. But Congress has never taken that step, presumably due to the power of the insurance industry lobby.

With the soaring cost of health care now in the spotlight, this may finally be the right time.

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