Three strikes you're out at the old Blues game

DAN RODRICKS

September 29, 1992|By DAN RODRICKS

What must a guy do to get a seat in the Blue Cross and Blue Shield skybox?

I keep my premium up to date, my employer pays his share, and I stay healthy. I figure I should get a shot at the skybox.

Those of you who pay health insurance premiums to the Blues might share my attitude -- especially if you've read the recent U.S. Senate subcommittee report on the Blues' finances.

I say the company should reward its good customers. Since our premiums went into a four-year, $300,000 lease on a luxury skybox at Oriole Park, we ought to be allowed to share in the fun.

Maybe the Blues could offer free blood-pressure checks during the seventh-inning stretch. They could serve health salad instead of quiche.

You didn't know you were paying for a skybox when you signed up for the group conversion plan at $5,800 a year, did you?

All you wanted was health insurance from a solid company, right?

You don't want to make contributions to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra -- not with your health insurance premiums, anyway. When you signed up for the Blues' family plan, you didn't know you'd be footing an $800 limousine bill for the chief executive officer. You didn't know you'd be springing for $9,000 worth of lunch at the Center Club. You didn't know about the $75,000 membership fee at the Caves Valley golf course, did you?

National health insurance is looking better all the time, isn't it?

A skybox at Oriole Park, trips to foreign countries, fat salaries for the CEO and his vice presidents -- this is what some of our premiums paid for. Carl Sardegna, chief executive officer of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Maryland, makes $850,000 a year at a time when premiums are rising and the company takes a hard line with customers on reimbursable expenses. Has Sardegna heard the national scream over the costs of premiums and the quality of health care? Maybe he was out of the country. He went to the Soviet Union with the BSO, and the Blues' picked up the tab.

"You don't have any trouble justifying that as a business purpose?" asked Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., at a subcommittee hearing last week. "You make a pretty good salary. Why couldn't you pay for it out of your own pocket?"

"Senator," said Sardegna, "in hindsight, I probably would have made a different decision."

Ah, hindsight.

Had Sardegna known, back when he decided to have some fun at subscriber expense, that he would one day be sitting before ole Sam Nunn in a Senate hearing room, lawyers at his side, explaining why he charged a trip to the company when the company already was paying him $850,000 a year -- had he known all that, he would have pulled out his American Express Platinum Card and paid for the trip himself. He might have taken a pay cut, too.

I believe it, don't you?

Same goes for our state insurance commissioner, John Donaho. He accepted free use of the Blues' skybox at Oriole Park last June. He's supposed to be regulating the Blues. His acceptance of the free use of the skybox was an obvious conflict of interest. Had he known that at the time -- had he known it would be blasted all over the newspapers -- Donaho would not have done it. I believe it, don't you?

And had we all known about these outrageous expenses and salaries at the Blues, we might have been screaming sooner and louder for national health insurance.

You can condemn this idea as a socialist-communist plot. But who can look at the recent record of the Blues' and other health insurers and not demand a better system? Remove profit and largess? Why not? Cut the fat. Give customers a break. Make health insurance affordable to the millions of Americans who currently go without.

Last week, a 60-year-old woman told me that she and her husband carry a $1,500 deductible on their health insurance policy in order to afford it. The amount of the deductible has increased every year for several years, she said, and that's the only way she and her husband have been able to maintain coverage. They put off going to the doctor a lot, to avoid bills. And they're among the lucky ones. Thirty-six million Americans have no health insurance at all.

Nationalization, or the establishment of a federal system, would not alone solve the problem of spiraling health care costs, but it would be a start. We ought to get on the stick. Before it's time to renew the lease on the skybox.

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