Bust Up the Health Insurance Trusts.

Years ago I worked at the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC predates the New Deal. It was set up in 1914 during the administration of Woodrow Wilson, at a time when many of America’s industries had combined into giant trusts that had enormous market and political power. The FTC was designed to root out such unfair practices. It ought to take on the health insurance trusts.

My health insurer here in California is Anthem Blue Cross. So far, my group policy hasn’t been affected by Anthem’s planned rate increase of as much as 39 percent for its customers with individual policies — but the trend worries me, as it should everyone. Rates are soaring all over the country. Insurers have been seeking to raise premiums 24 percent in Connecticut, 23 percent in Maine, 20 percent in Oregon and a wallet-popping 56 percent in Michigan. How can insurers raise prices as much as they want without fear of losing customers?

Astonishingly, the health insurance industry is exempt from federal antitrust laws, which is why a handful of insurers have become so dominant in their markets that their customers simply have nowhere else to go. But that protection might soon end: President Obama on Tuesday announced his support of a House bill that would repeal health insurers’ antitrust exemption, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi signaled that she would put it toward an immediate vote.

This is promising news. Forcing insurers to compete for our business would do at least as much good as the president’s new proposal to give the federal government, working with the states, the power to deny or roll back excessive premiums. The fact is that half of the states already have the power to approve rates and they don’t seem to be holding insurers back much.

More after the jump.

--Robert Reich

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