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Continued: 'Public option' gets a boost from ex-UNH exec

  • Article by: CHEN MAY YEE , Star Tribune
  • Last update: October 28, 2009 - 10:48 PM

Lois Quam has been many things: a health insurance executive, a venture capitalist and, most recently, owner of her own strategic advisory firm.

Now add insurance industry critic.

In a speech Wednesday at the University of Minnesota's Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, Quam threw her support behind a proposed government-run health insurance plan that would compete with private insurers.

That would be the same public option now vehemently opposed by health insurers, including Quam's former employer, UnitedHealth Group.

A public option would guarantee affordable coverage, set a baseline for benefits and premiums and help cover the 47 million Americans now uninsured, Quam said.

She also took on the insurance industry head-on, noting that insurers had opposed (unsuccessfully) the creation of Medicare in the 1960s and opposed (successfully) health care reform during the early years of the Clinton administration.

Now they're doing it again, she said: "The insurance industry's actions in the current health care reform debate have too often just been wrong. Their opposition to a public option, and the efforts to protect themselves, rather than Americans, are simply wrong."

'Irresponsible'

While health insurers have pledged support for legislation expanding health coverage -- anticipating a bonanza of new members -- they've balked at some components. Recently, just before a crucial Senate committee vote, the industry released a report that predicted a sharp rise in premiums if reform goes through.

"The insurance industry's injection of the recent PriceWaterhouse Coopers report on projected costs into the debate at the 11th hour, one using incomplete data and false assumptions, was irresponsible,'' Quam said. "The recent economic crisis on Wall Street shows what can result if corporations and industries are not held accountable."

UnitedHealth spokesman Don Nathan said the company is a strong supporter of health reform and has put forth several ideas to keep down medical costs. As for the company's opposition to the public option, people already "have a lot of choices among health plans and [the public option] does not get at the core issue of restraining costs," Nathan said.

In a way, Quam's support of a public option is not surprising. In the early 1990s, she chaired a state commission that led to the creation of MinnesotaCare, a public plan for those who can't afford private insurance but don't qualify for Medical Assistance. She also worked on health care reform in the Clinton administration.

Quam went on to became a top executive at Minnetonka-based UnitedHealth Group, and was regularly named by Fortune magazine as one of the 50 most powerful women in American business.

There, she started the subsidiary Ovations to house UnitedHealth's Medicare business. Last year, Ovations contributed $28.1 billion to UnitedHealth's total revenue of $75.9 billion. "My work with government-run insurance plans has allowed me to see the value they provide, the gaps they fill, the peace of mind and security they give to the people enrolled in them," she said.

She left UnitedHealth in 2007 to join Minneapolis investment bank Piper Jaffray. This year, she started her own strategic advisory firm, Tysvar LLC. Quam's husband, Matt Entenza, a Democrat, is running for governor.

Chen May Yee • 612-673-7434

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