The House Wednesday voted overwhelmingly to strip health insurers of an exemption from some federal antitrust scrutiny they have enjoyed since the 1945 enactment of the McCarran-Ferguson Act. The tally was 406-19. All of the nay votes were cast by Republicans.
The legislation, introduced by Tom Perriello (D-Va.), is a trimmed-down version of similar legislation that was included in the health overhaul package that passed the House last year. That measure also would have included medical malpractice insurers, who fall under the larger property and casualty umbrella.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced a slightly different bill last fall, but it did not make it into the final version of the health bill passed by the Senate.
After Wednesday’s House vote, Leahy issued a statement urging his colleagues to consider legislation to repeal the health insurance industry antitrust exemption.
“We cannot introduce competition to the health insurance market while allowing the insurance industry to hide behind a special-interest, anachronistic, statutory antitrust immunity,” Leahy said in a statement. “I hope the Senate will quickly pass this repeal and send it to President Obama to be signed into law.”
Courts have cut back on the exemption over the years. Recent studies have shown that local markets are dominated by large health insurers. The American Medical Association found that more than 90 percent of metropolitan markets are “highly concentrated”, but experts disagree to what extent such concentration is a product of lax antitrust oversight.
In an op-ed article today in The New York Times, Robert Reich, who was secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, voiced support for the repeal. Here’s his take:
Anthem’s parent is WellPoint, one of the largest publicly traded health insurers in America, which runs Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans in 14 states and Unicare plans in several others. WellPoint, through Anthem, is the largest for-profit health insurer here in California, as it is in Maine, where it controls 78 percent of the market. In Missouri, WellPoint owns 68 percent of the market; in its home state, Indiana, 60 percent. With 35 million customers, WellPoint counts one out of every nine Americans as a member of one of its plans.
Antitrust laws are supposed to prevent this kind of market power.
On Tuesday, the White House also announced its support for the legislation.