FORT LAUDERDALE, FL - Progressive forces from around Florida converged here May 17 to protest Coventry Health Care's use of its mega-profits to oppose the Affordable Care Act.
They held signs saying "Insurance Companies--Stop Using Our Premiums to Buy Politicians," while chants of "Coventry--Rich and Rude / We Don't Like Your Attitude / Allen Wise--Rich and Rude / We Don't Like Your Attitude" echoed on the sidewalk across from the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, site of Coventry's annual shareholder meeting.
"We're here today to represent the 99 percent against the one percent," Tony Fransetta, president of the Florida Alliance of Retired Americans told the crowd.
"It's great to be a part of the one percent--they're inside," he said. "They insulate themselves from the 99 percent, but... no insurance company can go to the polls."
"We have to get the rest of the 99 percent out here, get them active, get them voting, and representing their own interests," said Fransetta.
Wise, CEO of Coventry--the nation's sixth-largest insurer, was paid nearly $13 million in 2011. He is, according to Forbes magazine, the 53rd highest-paid CEO in the country and fifth-highest in the health-care industry. Top executives at Coventry, including Wise, four executive vice presidents and a senior vice president, brought home a combined $29 million in 2011, including salary, stock options, and bonuses.
Speakers at the rally denounced Coventry for using its profits for lobbyists and for campaign contributions in order to block implementation of the ACA.
"Instead of using their money on health care, they're using it to influence elections and rig pubic policy in their favor," said Organize Now! member Sue Casterline. "We need them to focus on what patients and small businesses are giving them this money for: to provide the health care they need to survive."
"From the day the law was passed, insurance companies, their corporate lobbyists, hacks in Congress, and right-wing Republicans have been trying to repeal it, starting with the parts that protect consumers," said Ylet Cyrus, an SEIU member and retired health-care worker.
"Insurance companies don't want to follow rules that require them to treat consumers fairly," said Cyrus. "They want to go back to the days when they made all the rules, and we had no choice but to accept them even if our health and wallets suffered."
"I'm here to tell Coventry and its shareholders those days are over," she said.
Cyrus was one of two retired workers blocked from attending and speaking at the shareholder meeting despite having proper identification and paperwork indicating that they held proxies for Coventry shares owned by the Service Employees International Union and the Communications Workers of America.
"They had every credential to come in and were denied access because they are regular working people," said Sheena Rolle, program director of Organize Now! Other groups participating in the action included Awake Broward, Florida New Majority, and Health Care for America Now, which works to defend and implement the ACA.
Coventry and other insurers detest provisions in the ACA that stop them from discriminating against those with pre-existing conditions, canceling policies because of unintentional errors on the application and setting limits on how much they'll spend on treatment, which is important for those with very expensive illnesses like cancer.
Coventry was one of three insurers that supported a 2011 request by Florida's Office of Insurance Regulation to soften an ACA rule that mandates insurers spend at least 80 percent of each premium dollar on health care and quality improvement rather than on executive salaries, advertising and other overhead.
Florida regulators claimed that entry barriers in the insurance market and a lessening of consumer choice warranted reducing the minimum "medical loss ratio"--the amount of premium dollars not spent on health care--from 80-68 percent (rising to 72 percent in 2012, and 76 in 2013).
The federal Department of Health and Human Services rejected the proposal, saying that most Florida insurers already meet the standard, are "sufficiently profitable" or are adequately adjusting their business models to comply with the law.
Under the ACA, insurers who fail to meet the minimum "medical loss ratio" must provide rebates to their policyholders. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, insurers will pay an estimated $1.3 billion in rebates this year, with $50 million of that total coming from Coventry. An analysis of insurer filings by the South Florida Sun Sentinel found that Coventry will need to return $5.3 million to policyholders in the Sunshine State.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Coventry contributed nearly $200,000 to non-federal candidates and political committees in Florida during the 2010 election cycle, with almost 55 percent of these funds going to Republicans, according to the Alliance for a Just Society and Organize Now!
In 2011, Coventry spent between $100,000 and $160,000 lobbying members of Florida's Republican-dominated legislature and between $60,000 and $120,000 lobbying the executive branch of Florida's government, which is controlled by ultra-right millionaire Gov. Rick Scott.
Nationally, Coventry, including its political action committees, employees, board members and subsidiaries, contributed more than $850,000 to federal candidates from 1998 to the first quarter of 2012. During that same period, the hugely profitable corporation--with 2011 profits of $543 million, up from $242 million in 2009--and its subsidiaries spent almost $7 million on federal lobbying in an effort to influence public policy. Between 2009 and 2011, Coventry, which has 14,000 employees and is based in Bethesda, Md., saw its profit margin nearly double from 3.6 percent to 7.1 percent.
The south Florida protest was part of the Shareholders Spring, called by Moveon.org, the AFL-CIO, the Working Families Party and other groups to hold corporations accountable for actions that hurt the 99 percent. So far activists have attempted to make their presence felt at the shareholder meetings of Bank of America, WellPoint, Cigna, General Electric, Wells Fargo, Carnival Cruise Lines, Verizon and others.
Members of Occupy Tampa, SEIU, One Miami, Organize Now! and other groups also protested at the JP Morgan Chase shareholder meeting in Tampa on May 15.
Among their demands were that Chase reduce the principle on mortgages it holds when the amount owed is greater than the fair-market value of the properties.
A proxy from SEIU spoke at the meeting asking Chase to take action on wage theft complaints by immigrant janitors who work for the company that cleans Chase branches in the Miami area. SEIU 32BJ, which represents 120,000 property service workers from Connecticut to Florida, is trying to organize the Miami janitors.
Photo: John Bachtell/PW