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Protesters Mobilize as Insurers Put on the Ritz

When health insurance executives gather at the Ritz-Carlton on Tuesday for their annual policy conference, they may find the swank hotel won’t buffer them from the increasingly loud and bitter debate over health care reform legislation.

Vowing to engage in civil disobedience, a number of progressive and union-backed groups are planning to protest the Washington, D.C., event sponsored by America’s Health Insurance Plans.

Health Care for America Now, a major underwriter of the campaign to support President Barack Obama’s health care reform effort, is organizing the event to draw attention to the insurance industry, which it argues has been driving up insurance rates while opposing Congressional efforts to overhaul the health care system.

Protesters are scheduled to march from Dupont Circle to the hotel on 22nd Street, where they are promising to engage in street theater that includes making symbolic “citizen arrests” of insurance company executives.

“AHIP is having a party, and we’re paying for it. We’re going to crash the party,” said Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. In a conference call with reporters Monday, McEntee said the crowd will include at least 3,000 people from his union, including 500 from the AFSCME headquarters in Washington.

“Thousands of people will be gathering at the Ritzy Carlton,” he said.

Richard Kirsch, national campaign manager for union-funded HCAN, said it was befitting that the health insurance officials who have been attacked for raising rates were meeting at the luxury hotel.

“Where else but the Ritz?” he said.

Kirsch said that some people will engage in civil disobedience, but he added, “It is not going to get out of hand.”

He said that participants will attempt to enter the hotel to try to confront the executives of health insurance giants such as Aetna and United Healthcare.

AHIP spokesman Robert Zirkelbach said of the planned protest, “People are allowed to express their views.”

But Zirkelbach noted that association officials were also “taking the necessary precautions” to deal with the rally. He said the annual conference includes participants who espouse a range of opinions on the health care reform issue and is open to the press.

As for why the industry group is holding the event at a hotel associated with opulence, Zirkelbach said, “This was booked years ago.”

“It’s a terrific conference facility,” he added.

In making their closing arguments for passing health care legislation, Democrats have escalated their attacks on the insurance industry particularly after Anthem Blue Cross proposed a 39 percent increase in health care rates for customers in California.

On Monday, Obama stepped up his rhetoric against health insurers and urged Congressional Democrats to pass reforms, saying, “If not now, when? If not us, who?”

Health insurance officials blame the rate hikes on healthier people dropping their policies because of the poor economy and leaving the companies with the burden of paying out claims for the sickest and most expensive policyholders.

But AHIP’s critics aren’t buying it. And they have been pressing conference participants to drop out. Kirsch said the only person he knew of who had withdrawn was Chris Jennings, a former Clinton administration official who is now a health care consultant with his own firm, Jennings Policy Strategies.

Jennings confirmed that he decided not to give his planned talk at the insurance conference because of the protest.

“I would never cross a picket line,” Jennings said. But the health care consultant said that, ironically, the talk he was planning was to be critical of the health insurance industry.

Jennings provided an e-mail that he sent to Kirsch on Monday detailing his criticisms of the insurance industry. “I was going to use my time to tell health insurance reps why the underwriting, pricing, and advocacy practices of far too many health plans AND their inconsistent rhetoric — bordering on hypocrisy — (e.g., they say they are for reform, but their members are reportedly underwriting camouflaged advertisement attacks; they say they want more aggressive cost containment as they oppose reducing over-payments to MA plans) — are not only indefensible, it undermines whatever credibility they have to be ‘constructive players,’” Jennings wrote.

But Jennings also made clear in the e-mail to Kirsch that he didn’t condone the protests and said, “Do not make me part of the story.”

“It is important for you to know that I am not a fan of disrupting meetings that provide exposure to much needed alternative views,” Jennings added in the e-mail.

The two-day conference, called the 2010 National Policy Forum, includes a series of speakers on issues with titles such as “Health Reform: Where Are We Now and Where Are We Headed?” “Reducing the Growth Rate of Health Care Costs” and “Health Care Reform: What Role Does the Media Play?”

The speakers include academics, think-tank staffers, corporate executives, journalists and federal officials, according to an itinerary posted on the conference Web site.

The Web site notes that registration for the conference is now closed.

It also states that 39 percent of the conference participants are health insurance plan executives, while 30 percent are policy and research professionals and 13 percent are involved in business products and operations.

According to the Web site, conference participants are offered group rates at the Ritz-Carlton for $295 a night plus tax but can also stay at several other hotels in the area.

The Web site lists a number of “chairman level” sponsors for the conference including drug companies Merck and Eli Lilly and health care management, research and technology companies Ingenix, McKesson, TriZetto, CH Mack, Connecture, First Recovery Group and Consult a Doctor.

Tuesday's planned protest is part of a series of activities by HCAN and other groups that continues on Wednesday when people who have had negative experiences with health insurance companies will meet with lawmakers.

HCAN has also unveiled new television ads and Web videos featuring Chris Shiflett of the rock band Foo Fighters.

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