Steve King wants to let insurance companies keep fixing prices (updated with Tom Latham hypocrisy)

The House of Representatives approved a bill to repeal the insurance industry’s exemption from anti-trust laws today by an overwhelming margin of 406 to 19. All 253 Democrats present were joined by 153 Republicans in voting for H.R. 4626, the Health Insurance Industry Fair Competition Act. Representative Tom Latham of Iowa’s fourth district voted with the majority, but Steve King disgraced the fifth district again by voting no (roll call here).

The anti-trust exemption has helped health insurers to avoid meaningful competition in most markets. Price-fixing is wonderful for corporate profits but doesn’t help consumers obtain affordable insurance coverage. The anti-trust exemption is one reason insurers have been able to jack up premiums by far more than the rate that medical costs are increasing (and many times the overall rate of inflation). Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield, which controls about 70 percent of the health insurance market in Iowa, recently announced rate hikes averaging 18 percent for about 80,000 individual policy-holders. Many of those policies (including my family’s) will see premiums go up by 22 percent as of April 1.

How many of King’s constituents will be forced to downgrade their coverage or drop their insurance because of this rate increase? How many Iowa businesses will suffer because their customers have less disposable income to spend on other goods and services? I’ve come to expect outrageous votes from King, but I’m curious to hear how he will justify his vote to keep consumers at the mercy of colluding insurance companies. I will update this post when I see an official statement from him.

A press release from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee noted that King has received $53,835 in campaign contributions from the insurance industry. (That number appears to have come from Open Secrets site.) I posted the full text of the release after the jump.

The White House issued a statement yesterday supporting the Health Insurance Industry Fair Competition Act. It’s unfortunate that the the Obama administration didn’t fight to get this provision in the larger health care reform package, but passing it as a stand-alone bill would still be a step forward.

Quite a few Senate Republicans are on record claiming to support repealing the insurance industry’s anti-trust exemption. Senate Majority Harry Reid should bring this bill to a vote as soon as possible. I suspect that if it reaches the floor, Senate Republicans will be as afraid to vote against it as the majority of House Republicans were today.

UPDATE: The Associated Press reports that prospects for this bill “are dim in the Senate.” If that turns out to be correct, it’s yet another reason rank and file Democrats should stop giving to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Meanwhile, David Dayen notes that before the anti-trust exemption bill passed, “there was also a motion to recommit, which would have essentially stopped the bill in its tracks, and 165 Republicans voted for that, along with 5 Democrats.”

Iowa’s own Tom Latham was among the 100-plus Republican cowards who voted for the procedural motion to stop the bill, then for the bill once the blocking attempt had failed.

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Dorgan will offer amendment on importing prescription drugs

The White House agreement with the pharmaceutical industry, which is reflected in the Senate Finance Committee’s health care bill, is one of the most shameful episodes of the health care reform process. Presidential candidate Barack Obama had promised to “put an end to the game-playing” in Washington, citing in one television ad the deal the pharmaceutical industry wrote into the Medicare prescription drug legislation. Yet in order to bring big Pharma on board with health care reform, the White House “stood by a behind-the-scenes deal to block any Congressional effort to extract cost savings from them beyond an agreed-upon $80 billion.”

Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota says no deal, according to Ryan Grim of the Huffington Post:

A Senate Democratic leader is hoping to blow up the deal reached between the White House, drug makers and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), by introducing an amendment on the floor to allow prescription drugs to be re-imported from Canada.

It’s one of the simplest ways to reduce health care costs but was ruled out by the agreement, which limits Big Pharma’s contribution to health care reform to $80 billion over ten years.

North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan, a member of Democratic leadership, isn’t a party to that bargain. “Senator Dorgan intends to offer an amendment to the health reform bill and his expectation is that it will be one of the first amendments considered,” his spokesman Justin Kitsch told HuffPost in an e-mail. “Prescription drug importation is an immediate way to put downward pressure on health care costs. It has bipartisan support, and has been endorsed by groups such as the National Federation of Independent Businesses and AARP.” […]

Jim Manley, senior communications adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said that he sees no reason the amendment won’t get a floor vote.

If an amendment on reimporting drugs from Canada gets to the Senate floor, it is hard to see how it fails to pass. Grim notes that a separate bill to allow re-importation of prescription drugs from Canada “has 30 cosponsors, several Republicans among them.” I hope the White House doesn’t start twisting arms to keep that amendment off the Senate floor.

Giving the government the ability to negotiate prescription drug prices would bring costs down even more. Obama should support that reform, since he says he won’t let the health care bill add a dime to the deficit. But apparently, not taking that step was part of the White House deal with drug companies.

Speaking of backroom deals, Alexander Bolton reports for The Hill, citing “senior Democratic aides,” that Reid will “not include legislation repealing antitrust exemptions for the health insurance industry in the healthcare package he will bring to the Senate floor.”

So far the powerful insurance industry has held back waging a full-out battle against Democratic health reform proposals because companies stand to gain tens of millions of new customers. But adding language that would open health insurance companies to prosecution by the Justice Department would provoke a strong counterattack from the industry.

Hey, why take something valuable away from the insurance industry (the ability to fix prices) just because we’re about to hand them a “bonanza” (individual mandate to buy their products)? They might run ads against us.

It is time to replace Reid as Senate majority leader. Since Senate Democrats are unlikely to take that step, I agree with Chris Bowers that Reid losing re-election next year wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Getting a more effective majority leader, like Dick Durbin of Illinois or Chuck Schumer of New York, would make up for losing Reid’s Senate seat.

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