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Something to hide


The letter is plain and straightforward. The header: "North Carolinians for Affordable Health Care." The hook: "Are you worried that the cost of health care ... is continuing to climb?" The question: "So who would support anything that would increase the cost of health care?" The answer: "Special interest groups, that's who."

When Bill Rowe, the head of the N.C. Justice Center, got his in the mail, he took it to the office of Adam Searing, director of the N.C. Health Access Coalition and told him, "Y'know, we should try to work with these guys."

He--and, undoubtedly, hundreds of other business people around the state who received the letter--didn't realize it was a lie and a deception. Rather than being "a new, citizens' coalition dedicated to fighting any efforts to raise the cost of health care," as it claimed, the group is a front for Blue Cross/Blue Shield of North Carolina--a special interest group, that's who.

A spokesman for Blue Cross sheepishly acknowledged the connection.

"We should have identified ourselves," said Mark Stinneford. "We funded it."

The group's real roots were recognized by Searing, whose group has been at the forefront of the effort to scrutinize BCBS's effort to convert from a nonprofit to a for-profit company. The state Division of Insurance is weighing the company's request, and Insurance Commissioner Jim Long could make a decision this summer.

Searing sees the creation of a phony citizens' organization as part of Blue Cross' campaign to go for-profit.

"They've seen the success that consumer groups have had with grassroots campaigns, and they want to imitate us," he says. "The letter is an attempt to expand their bases, and collect people who say they're worried about costs, and then tell them that Blue Cross needs to convert, or your rates are going to go up."

Blue Cross has never made clear why it wants to go for-profit. It has merely held out the lure of a multimillion-dollar foundation that state law requires if it converts to a for-profit company. One thing it has consistently said is that its rates won't go up as a result of conversion.

Stinneford says the group's affiliation with BCBS would have been discovered by anyone who went to the Web site mentioned in the letter. And it has nothing to do with conversion, he said--its sole purpose is to lobby legislators on other health care cost issues.

But creation of a group with the pretext of wanting to hold down costs is the height of hypocrisy in light of a blistering study by the accounting firm Ernst and Young, which is analyzing conversion for the state. In its report released this month, it said BCBS was not providing the information necessary to verify that rates wouldn't increase if it goes for-profit. What's more, the report found that North Carolina's BCBS maintains a larger surplus than most large health insurers and has a healthier profit margin that many for-profits--now, as a nonprofit.

But going for-profit, the consultants said, would create pressure to become even more profitable--and to raise prices.

So, to recap: Here's a health organization that has been operating as a public trust, going to the public and asking to become a for-profit corporation. They say it won't cost anyone any more money, and that health care won't suffer.

Yet they won't open their books, won't share their business plan, won't say if they're for sale, and have never come clean about their future.

If they really want to be doing something good for North Carolina, why don't they answer the concerns that have been raised about conversion and its effect on health care?

Could it be that, like the "North Carolinians for Affordable Health Care," they have something to hide?

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