When I spoke Monday to Robin Acree of Grass Roots Organizing (GRO) as she was driving back to Mexico, MO, she sounded drunk. On power. She was high from attending the annual shareholders’ meeting of UnitedHealth in Overland Park, KS, a suburb of Kansas City and seeing its multimillionaire CEO stuttering as he came under fire from progressive activists in the room. She said this was just the latest action of its kind, following on the heels of similar face-offs at shareholders’ meetings of Signa and Wellpoint.
Five members of HCAN and Main Street Alliance took the floor and called CEO Stephen Hemsley on the carpet. GRO member Ann Johnson has been unemployed for a year and a half and thus without health insurance. She was after Hemsley for sending UnitedHealth employees to town halls and Tea Party events last summer as part of an effort to kill health care reform. He tried to weasel out of that one by contending that the employees were not paid to go. Note to Mr. Hemsley: When you pay people’s salary and give them time off work to attend political events, you look foolish pretending that it’s a coincidence when they show up in goodly numbers. At least have the grace to blush for that song and dance.
After Johnson softened Hemsley up, other folks pummeled him. The CEO found himself stammering when one of them wanted to know how, since UH spends only 60 cents out of every dollar it takes in on health care, how he planned to change the company’s practices so that it would be spending 80 cents on the dollar as the law will require. What, no plans? No plans at all?
And by the time the 80 percent medical loss ratio requirement kicks in, the company will no longer be allowed to use rescissions to fatten the bottom line. An activist challenged him for using them at all and for announcing that the company has no intention of calling an early halt to the practice of canceling people’s policies when they get sick by dredging up some “pre-existing condition.” He couldn’t exactly respond with “But, but. Look at all the hundreds of millions of bucks we made by the unnecessary suffering and death of customers who depended on us.” Nah. Not advisable.
While he was reeling from that question, someone else asked if he could explain why Warren Buffett had recently divested himself of $102 million in UnitedHealth stock. Well. What’s a guy to say? “Once we are no longer allowed to throw unprofitable customers on the trash heap, our obscene profits will drop. Actually, Mr. Buffett took the wisest course by getting out now.” Better to stay silent.
A representative of Main Street Alliance, a coalition of small business owners, pointed out that small business has been doing all the job creating these last few years, and yet such businesses are facing 30-40 percent hikes in their health insurance premiums. This recession would be easing up a lot faster if the health insurance industry weren’t hobbling the engines of economic growth. It’s not easy for the company honcho to respond to the implication that UnitedHealth is about a half step behind Goldman Sachs and Bank of America as far as damaging this nation’s financial health.
The pro-health reform visitors also spoke in favor of two proposals that were being considered to put before all the shareholders. In order to get them on the ballot, 3 percent of those present had to vote in favor. The proposal that shareholders have the ability to vote on the pay of executives passed solidly with 45.9 percent of the shareholders in attendance. What do you think? If that one passes on the balloting, will Hemsley still be making about $9,000 an hour?
The other proposal was that the company be required to disclose all its lobbying expenditures, including money to third parties like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and AHIP. That one got only 7 percent approval, but that’s still enough to get it on the ballot.
So Robin was inebriated from watching her allies beard the lion in his den, making Hemsley look foolish in front of the people interested enough in that corporation to attend its annual meeting–people who, in fact, may wonder whether he deserves that princely salary.
Hey, Robin. Cheers.