In an aggressive new effort to influence the congressional health care debate, UnitedHealth Group this week e-mailed its 75,000 U.S. employees, urging them to contact their senators and providing two form letters attacking specific legislative proposals.
In addition, the Minnetonka-based insurer urged employees to write letters to local newspapers and then share those letters with the company's lobbying arm.
UnitedHealth, the nation's biggest health insurer, encouraged employees to oppose a public insurance option in federal legislation as well as payment cuts to the Medicare Advantage program, while advocating stronger requirements for people to buy insurance.
While it is not uncommon for a company to tell employees its positions on legislation that affects the bottom line, the UnitedHealth e-mail appears to go further than most by providing the form letters and urging employees who write letters to their newspapers to share a copy with the company.
One form letter directed to lawmakers asserts that "government-run health care will result in millions of Americans not being able to keep their current coverage and will lead to unintended consequences of higher premiums and less choice."
The next paragraph states: "While I am writing to you as an individual, and the opinion I express is my own, I work at UnitedHealth Group, a company that has proposed market reforms that will guarantee quality, affordable, portable coverage for all, regardless of gender, health status, or pre-existing conditions."
The Nov. 10 e-mail, with the subject line "Write Your Senators!" was sent by United for Health Reform, the company's lobbying group. It was made public Thursday by Consumer Watchdog, a consumer advocacy group based in Santa Monica, Calif., and Washington, D.C.
"Writing to employees on where they stand is probably common historically and part of corporate culture," said Judy Dugan, research director at Consumer Watchdog. "Going so far as to send out form letters is crossing a line in terms of putting political pressure on your employees."
Bob Kennedy, a professor of ethics and business law at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business, said much depends on the culture of the company.
"If the company climate is such that people regard this as marching orders rather than gentle suggestion,'' it might make employees uneasy, Kennedy said. On the other hand, he added, keeping track of employee letters to newspapers "could be a reasonable desire to know when [a letter] is going to appear in print.''
'Participation is voluntary'
UnitedHealth spokesman Don Nathan said Thursday that the company was "explicit in making clear to people that participation is voluntary."
A form letter is "very standard," Nathan said. "We get asked 'What should I say? What should I do?'"
The e-mail also says employees are free to edit the letters.
But Dugan said, "Nobody in their right mind would do this. It would be career suicide or job suicide."
To which Nathan said: "Clearly, we have much greater respect for our employees than she does for their intelligence, independence and integrity. I find it somewhat offensive that an outside group is seeking to muzzle our employees."
UnitedHealth has long said it supports health reform and universal coverage. But it has also made known its opposition to portions of the House and Senate bills, in particular a public insurance option that would compete with private insurers. It also opposes payment cuts to Medicare Advantage, a program in which UnitedHealth has the lion's share of the market nationally.
The Nov. 10 e-mail includes tips on how to write a letter to the editor, including "keep it brief," "share your unique perspective" and "don't write every week."
Finally, the e-mail urged, "Share a copy of your letter with us" and provided an e-mail address.
Chen May Yee 612-673-7434