BCBS plea to customers on reform hits a nerve

Political flier follows rate hike

Staff WriterOctober 28, 2009 

Maybe it was just lousy timing, but many customers of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina are ticked off at the mail they've received recently from the state's largest insurer.

First, they learned their rates will rise by an average of 11 percent next year.

Next, they opened a slick flier from the insurer urging them to send an enclosed pre-printed, postage-paid note to Sen. Kay Hagan denouncing what the company says is unfair competition that would be imposed by a government-backed insurance plan. The so-called public option is likely to be considered by Congress in the health-care overhaul debate.

"No matter what you call it, if the federal government intervenes in the private health insurance market, it's a slippery slope to a single-payer system," the BCBS flier read. "Who wants that?"

Plenty of people, it turns out.

Indignant Blue Cross customers have rebelled against the insurer's message, complaining that their premium dollars have funded such a campaign.

They've hit the Internet in a flurry of e-mails to friends and neighbors throughout the state. They've called Hagan's office to voice support for a public option. They've marked through the Blue Cross message on their postcards to instead vouch support, then dropped them in the mail -- in at least one case taped to a brick -- to be paid on Blue Cross' dime. Or dimes.

"I hope it backfires," said Mark Barroso, a documentary film maker in Chatham County who is a Blue Cross customer and recipient of the mailings. "I'm doing everything I can to make sure it does."

Barroso said his friends and neighbors have united to subvert the insurer's message. Residents of a neighborhood in Durham have lit up an online chat room with discussion of little else.

"I went sort of bonkers," said Beth Silberman of Durham. "You're hostage to them, and then they pull this. My new premiums are funding lobbying against competition. It's pretty disgusting."

Not going over well

A spokesman in Hagan's office, David Hoffman, said the postcards have not yet begun arriving in the senator's office because of the mail screening process, but he said lots of people have been calling to voice outrage at the insurer's tactics.

Lew Borman, a Blue Cross spokesman, said he wasn't sure how many people got the flier urging them to contact Hagan, but he said the mailing relied on voter registration records, not a customer list.

Since the company controls more than half of the state's health insurance market, there was unavoidable overlap.

Borman declined to reveal how much money the insurer paid for the mailing. Blue Cross is a nonprofit, so its finances are not as open as public companies.

He acknowledged the timing was unfortunate, coming as the firm typically sends its annual notices about rate increases. But he said the two mailings were coincidental, hinged to current events in Washington.

"We said from the beginning we were going to be involved and would tell North Carolinians what kind of impact the health-care proposals would have, and that's what we've been doing," Borman said.

Jenny Warburg, a freelance photojournalist in Durham, said she wishes she could switch insurance carriers over the issue, but no other company will cover her.

So she's stuck, and that makes her even madder.

"You're over a barrel," she said. "You have no choice."

And that, she said, is exactly what Blue Cross is eager to protect.

savery@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4882

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