On June 15, 1855, in the heat of a Mississippi summer, Francis Fountain paid $30 to insure his 27-year-old slave, Peter, for a period of three months.
Under Policy No. 271, Aetna Insurance Co. of Hartford, Connecticut, agreed to pay Fountain $800 in the event of Peter’s death. If Peter, who was valued at $1,100, committed suicide, died “at the hands of a mob” or by “neglect, abuse or maltreatment of the owner,” the policy said Aetna “shall not be liable for the payment of the sum insured.”
One hundred sixty years later, this policy and others like it could help decide the city of Durham’s next insurance carrier.
City staff members restated their recommendation Monday that the city switch from Durham-based Blue Cross and Blue Shield to Aetna, for a potential savings of $700,000 over the next three years and projected lower out-of-pocket costs for covered employees.
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Council members postponed a decision until they meet again Monday.
Councilman Eddie Davis expressed concern about Aetna’s “social history” and voiced his support for continuing with Blue Cross.
“I don’t want us to ... put our employees in a position where we end up having a product that compromises the social history and legacy of so many people who can relate to the alleged involvement of Aetna in issues that go back to the antebellum era,” Davis said.
During the 1850s, Aetna and other companies insured the lives of slaves. The company issued a public apology for the practice in 2000, refusing to grant reparations but expressing “deep regret.” It says it has evidence of 24 lives covered by its policies.
A series of lawsuits demanding reparations on behalf of those with slave ancestry, all filed in 2002, were consolidated into a class-action lawsuit against the company and those with similar policies. It reached the Supreme Court in 2007, but the court denied the plaintiffs their petition for a hearing.
Tom Baker, professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, said the practice was widely accepted, though slaves were far more likely to be covered by a marine insurance policy during their sail from Africa to America than by private slave holders in the U.S.
“As abhorrent and terrible as slavery was, the national life insurance companies sold insurance on slaves in the 19th century,” Baker said in an interview Wednesday. “It was not, to my knowledge, considered particularly controversial.”
‘Troubles my soul’
Davis’ concerns were seconded by Mayor Pro Tem Cora Cole-McFadden, but she also emphasized the extensive ties between Blue Cross and Durham.
“I remain troubled by the information on the website,” Cole-McFadden said, referring to the company’s public statement regarding its history. “But what concerns me most is that I really love Durham and the thought of doing business with some company in Connecticut troubles my soul.”
Aetna’s proposal projects $7.5 million in savings to the city over a three-year period compared to the standing contract with Blue Cross, and an immediate reduction in out-of-pocket costs for members enrolled in its established list of health-care providers designated “accountable care organizations,” a network established by Duke University.
Blue Cross has drafted a series of revised contracts. The latest, discussed Monday, projects $6.8 million in savings over the same three-year period and up to $5 million compensation to the city if the savings are not realized. Its proposed ACO network, BlueLocal, would not be available to claimants until next year.
The council asked Blue Cross to submit another revised proposal by Monday’s meeting, when it is expected to choose an insurance carrier.