GUESTS: Tom Frank, Sam Tanenhaus, Jonathan Turley, Robert Reich, Jamie Court
ANA MARIE COX, GUEST HOST: Good evening, Keith. Thank you. And thanks to you for tuning in. Rachel has the night off. I’m Ana Marie Cox.
Much of the news this summer was dominated by citizen outrage, a lot of it corporate-sponsored and contrived against the attempts to reform our health care system. This show did some digging and found the second largest health insurer in the country, United Health Group, promoted some of the grassroots outrage.
And "TalkingPointsMemo.com" uncovered a letter sent by United Health Group to its employees asking them to write letters and make phone calls to members of Congress and attend town hall meeting after advocacy specialists provided them with talking points.
The letter went on to tell employees that, "You may be contacted during business hours by a member of the United for Health Reform Advocacy team." That is so crushing corporate communication above and beyond or perhaps below filing TPS reports.
At the time, United Health Groups encouraging employees to oppose health care reform seemed creepy – another point of top-down profit-driven outrage. The Consumer Watchdog, an advocacy group based in Santa Monica, California, believes the activity may also have been illegal.
Consumer Watchdog sent a letter to California Attorney General Jerry Brown asking his office to investigate United Health Care and another insurer, WellPoint, for allegedly violating California’s Labor Code by pressuring employees to lobby against reform.
The letter says in part, "While coercive communications with employees may be legal, if abhorrent, in most states, California’s Labor Code appears to directly prohibit them."
The attorney general’s office says it’s reviewing the letter, leaving open the question of the claim’s legitimacy.
Joining me now is the president of Consumer Watchdog, Jamie Court. His organization wrote the letter asking Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown to investigate the United Health Care Group and WellPoint. Mr. Court, thank you for being here.
JAMIE COURT, PRESIDENT, CONSUMER WATCHDOG: My pleasure.
COX: Now, what California labor laws does your group believe that United Health Care Group or Net Health Group and WellPoint might have violated?
COURT: Well, the Labor Code clearly says that no company can control or direct the political activities of employees. And when you have a health insurer telling employees, "We’re going to contact you during business hours about getting involved in a lobbying campaign to stop a government- run option that’s going to put this industry out of business in those terms," that’s a pretty big way of controlling activity.
So this wasn’t just giving information on both sides of an issue. This was aggressive lobbying and WellPoint directed its employees to a Web site where you can contact members of Congress with a specific message to stop the government-run public option and save the private industry, asked them to write letters, and it made them register and log in.
So a big component here is that the surveillance, the control, the fact that someone’s being contacted at the office, not at home, being told what to say and what to do, and also being urged to attend town halls. We think that’s controlling – directing to control political activity.
And having been a part of these town halls in southern California, I can tell you there was an unbelievable amount of professional organizing. And there were rank-and-file soldiers. And now, we`re really wondering how many of them were for the health insurance companies themselves.
COX: Now, what argument would be that it’s in the insurance companies’ interests to fight against this reform? So how has it not – isn’t it also in the employees of those insurance companies’ interests to be on the same side as their employer?
But you’re saying because of the surveillance and because of the lack of options here, that’s what makes the difference?
COURT: Well, they shouldn’t be – you call them at home. Afterwards, you don’t link it to their employment. You know, United Health says it’s voluntary, but then, why are you sending out a letter to employees on company stationery? Why are you doing it? Why are you contacting them during business hours with a very specific dire message?
I mean, this is really companies that are desperate to put their soldiers in the field. So being an employee, you have the right to get involved in political activity. But you shouldn’t be coerced into it. You shouldn’t be having your employer tell you what to do and shouldn’t be doing it on business hours.
I mean, if it’s being done during business hours, that’s a company not just encouraging you, but directing and controlling you. And if I’m an employee and my employers tell someone to call me at my office about getting involved in the lobbying campaign, I’m wondering if I don’t, what are the repercussions, particularly when the language is dire here.
COX: And that brings us to the question, which is that do you have any whistleblowers? Do you have any indication that there are people that work for United Health Group or WellPoint who were upset by this, who have come to you or made complaints to other people that you have heard, you know, third hand, that they were upset by this tactic?
COURT: Well, actually after the story appeared in the "L.A. Times," we have had some employees contact us who were upset about the practice. And we are going to forward those names to the investigators of the Attorney General’s Office.
So it’s clearly something that doesn’t settle well with some employees. But also, you know, if you’re an employee at these companies, when you’re being told, "Look, this industry could be put out of business if health care reform succeeds," and if there is a public option to the private market, then you’re really wondering, "Wow, what are my options here?"
And that to me is controlling or directing political activity. It’s not simply providing information.
COX: Well, we’re definitely going to be following this very closely. Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, thank you so much for being here. We really appreciate it.
COURT: My pleasure.