As Dems Lose Congress, Stark Takes Last Shot at Health Insurers

By Steven Tavares

Rep. Pete Stark won re-election to the House last week, but control of Congress and its powerful committee chairs were wrested away by Republicans. The 19-term lawmaker, whose health subcommittee was instrumental in passing health care reform last March is using the few months in his chairmanship to get under the skin of health care insurers.

Stark says 10 leading health insurance companies reaped profits totalling $9.3 billion through the third quarter of this year; over $2 billion more than the same time last year, he says. (Click here for a chart detailing the profits)

“Health insurance premiums are eating up more and more of the budgets of working families,” said Stark. “Over the past decade, premiums for workers and employers have more than doubled, while family incomes have remained stagnant.”

In a letter sent today to the leaders of the 10 corporations, Stark asks them to lower rising premiums in light of the record profits. “I call upon your companies to share the billions you are reaping in higher profits with your policyholders by lowering premiums,” he said.

The correspondence was sent to the CEOs of UnitedHealthcare, WellPoint, Aetna, Humana, Coventry, Amerigroup, Healthspring, Health Net, Centene and Molina. According to Stark, the group averaged a 41 percent increase in profits over 2009. Many of the same insurers have been hounded throughout the past few months by Stark over exorbitant profit-taking. Many Democrats believe insurers are ramping up profits in advance of restrictions and uncertainty over the industry’s economic landscape as more elements of the health care reform bill come online.

Stark’s influence on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and its health subcommittee will wane once the new Congress is installed in January. The direction of the health chairmanship could radically change. Stark’s California counterpart Republican Wally Herger (CA-2) would be in line to take over for Stark. Herger, who represents the rural Northern California surrounding Chico and Eureka, last year co-sponsored legislation to repeal the landmark Health Care Reform Act.

Control of the influential tax-writing ways and means committee will also fall into the hands of conservative heavyweights. Rep. Dave Camp (R-GA) is the ranking member of the Republican caucus, but up-and-coming legislators Reps. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Eric Cantor (R-VA) also sit on the committee. Earlier this year, Stark held the chair for a single day after Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) stepped down for ethics charges. Rep. Sander Levin (D-MI) currently heads the group.