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Ellen Alperstein

When the premium notice arrived, my response was just like everyone else in California who has an individual health insurance policy with Anthem Blue Cross. An outrage so intense it could rewrite metaphorical communication. Soon, "going postal" will be the farm team for "going insurance."

Relatively speaking, I got off easy: My increase was only 28%, versus the 39% some policyholders received. Still, my new cost is five times as much as the whopper 5.7% increase in health-care spending America notched last year. In medical diagnosis-speak I believe the company's gougery would be called a compensatory response. That Anthem Blue Cross succumbed to pressure a couple weeks later from consumers and government officials and agreed to delay the increase is just a Band-Aid: It'll still rip your skin off when it's removed in a couple months.

Anthem Blue Cross justifies its overcompensation by claiming that a massive bailout of its younger, healthier policyholders from individual coverage threatens its ability to pay the future health care costs of the older, sicker people who stay. The company says the recession is forcing healthy younger people to play the percentages and drop their relatively inexpensive policies. In an interview with the Associated Press, an Anthem Blue Cross spokesman declined to quantify its anticipated shortfall of younger bailee income to older member outgo.

That was the day before Health Care for America Now issued a report based on company financial reports for 2009. Although the organization leans left, the figures don't lie: Despite covering fewer people than the previous year, the five largest health insurance companies realized 56% more profit. One of them was WellPoint, Inc., proud parent of Anthem Blue Cross. Would it surprise anyone that some of these insurers reduced expenditures on plan member health care during 2009 while raising salaries, administrative costs and profit-taking?

The insurance industrial complex cried "no fair," claiming that to compare figures from the nadir of the recession with the day-after is misleading. That argument would be more credible if its response to the post-depths-but-still-tenuous reality of customer-base erosion hadn't been handing out raises and buying new office chairs.

Despite being a resident of insurance land's "older" demographic, I am not sicker. I have a more healthful lifestyle and am probably fitter than 90% of its bailees; except in the first year or two when my deductible was $1,000 and I experienced an expensive knee misadventure, my health care expenses haven't come anywhere near the deductible since I first purchased Blue Cross coverage more than 20 years ago. Like trash removal, internet access and the occasional pizza, I'm willing to pay for the delivery of a valued or needed service. But Anthem Blue Cross, and its for-profit brethren, have confused "pay" with "extort."

Through years of regular and semi-massive premium increases accompanied by declining policy coverage, I have escalated to a $5,000 deductible with a separate deductible for prescriptions and more exclusions for coverage than Augusta National has for golf club members. It's the "I get hit by a truck and I don't lose my house, only everything in it" plan.

I could barely afford my health insurance before its prophylactic premium increases, and now that I have been laid off, I certainly can't afford $480 a month for the peace of mind that, should an accident occur, I would go bankrupt slower.

Nobody with more brains than a banana would believe that Anthem Blue Cross, a company whose profit in the last quarter of 2009 was $4.75 billion, is worried that demand will outpace supply in the near future. Its premium plunder is an articulate statement of what, by now, should be patently clear to the putative leaders of this country: The provision of health insurance does not belong in the for-profit, private sector. Health is not a commodity.

Under the circumstances, don't be surprised if some people don't wait to satisfy their deductible before "going insurance."

Ellen Alperstein is an editor and writer in Santa Monica whose work has been published in several major metropolitan newspapers.

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