Unions Protest AHIP Convention at Ritz

Posted March 9, 2010 at 6:26pm

Inside the Ritz-Carlton hotel on Tuesday, insurance executives shuttled between panel discussions on such topics as health care policy priorities and public opinion on health care reform. However, if they wanted a live sample of one slice of public opinion, they need only to have stepped outside the swank Washington, D.C., hotel and beyond the line of law enforcement.

There a crowd of union employees and liberal activists staged a boisterous protest against what they claim is an industry stuffed with overpaid executives who are focused more on profits than people’s health care.

Waving signs with pictures of top insurance executives plastered on them and shouting chants such as “What do we want? Health care. When do we want it? Now,” they strung a fake yellow police tape around the hotel declaring it a “crime scene.” Some of the activists unsuccessfully tried to enter the hotel to confront insurance chiefs and make symbolic “citizen arrests.”

The police escorted a handful of protesters away from the building, capping a day of colorful demonstrations that further underscored the gulf between the various sides in the divisive health care reform debate.

Neither those involved in the protest, organized by the union-backed Health Care for America Now, nor the attendees of the conference, sponsored by America’s Health Insurance Plans, spent much time interacting.

A number of those at the protest said they wanted to show there is energy and commitment for health care reform despite the attention paid to health care opponents, such as members of the tea party.

“We still have the fight in us to fight for health care,” said Michael Wilson, who works for the liberal group Americans for Democratic Action.

“I don’t feel people who are for it have made enough of a buzz,” said Tyler Southwell, a family physician from Michigan who wore his white doctor’s coat to the event. Southwell works at a family clinic in Ypsilanti that serves a low-income clientele who he said desperately needs the health care legislation to pass but doesn’t have the luxury of attending rallies.

“I want to stand up and be counted for my patients who are poor and don’t have a voice as loud as those people at the meeting,” he said.

Others offered more personal reasons for marching.

Wendy Katz of McLean, Va., said she has to pay $773 a month for health care coverage because she has a pre-existing condition.

“It’s so unfair,” said Katz, an unemployed social worker. Katz also bemoaned the lack of attention paid to supporters of health care reform. She said the last time that she attended a health care rally, it received scant media attention because it occurred on the same day that Michael Jackson died.

“I remember thinking, ‘God really wants this to fail,'” she said.

Although she was holding up a sign that touted support for the public insurance option, Katz said she was OK with the compromise backed by President Barack Obama that did not include one.

“It is better than nothing,” she said.

Only after the protest was largely over did a number of conference participants venture out of the hotel.

“It’s insanity,” Thomas Aslesen, an AHIP conference participant from Minnesota, said of the protests.

Aslesen, who works for Accord Benefit Resources, questioned why unions were so critical of insurance companies when most already had generous health care benefit packages.

At the same time, he chided the health care trade group for holding its conference at the Ritz-Carlton, reinforcing the perception that the industry was out of touch.

“Why don’t you just pull up in Rolls-Royces and Porsches?” he asked sarcastically.

Even though the protesters carried some angry messages, the demonstration was largely upbeat, taking place on a day when spring-like weather broke out in Washington, D.C. The protest even had a carnival atmosphere to it, with some participants dressed in costumes.

One group of young people came as fat-cat insurance executives, wearing suits, top hats and smoking cigars. They sported signs reading “United Wealth Care” and “Inhumana,” spoofing the well-known health care companies United Healthcare and Humana.

Another participant identified a long, red contraption on top of his head as a vampire squid, which he said represented “the blood sucking aspect” of some insurance companies.

A parade of speakers, many of them leaders of unions and progressive groups, addressed the crowd both at Dupont Circle and later in front of the nearby Ritz-Carlton.

Howard Dean, a physician and former head of the Democratic National Committee, urged support for the health care legislation now before Congress.

“This is a vote about one thing,” he told the crowd at Dupont Circle. “Are you for the insurance companies or are you for the American people?”

Dean had been critical of the plan approved by the Senate in December and had at the time even urged lawmakers to start over. But now that Congress is planning on making some fixes to that measure through a reconciliation bill, Dean said he approved of moving ahead with the legislation. Still, in a sign of the continued fractures in the Democratic Party over the shape of health care reform, Dean said he did not approve of the mandate that would force individuals to buy health insurance. That mandate is included in the plan being pushed by Obama.

“It is a political time bomb,” Dean said.

As Obama makes his final push for health care reform, he, too, has ratcheted up his attacks on the health care insurance companies. And insurers are fighting back.

AHIP is launching a $1 million advertising campaign that will emphasize the need for health care legislation to address increasing medical costs.

AHIP spokesman Robert Zirkelbach criticized the campaign by the administration and activist groups, including those behind Tuesday’s protests, of blaming insurance companies for problems in the health care system.

“There has been an effort to vilify the hard working men and women of our industry,” he said.