Advocacy group says U.S. health insurers set record with 2009 profits

The five largest public U.S. health insurance companies generated record profits in 2009, according to a new report from Health Care for America Now (HCAN).

The health care campaign organization said WellPoint, parent company of Anthem, and UnitedHealth, parent company of UnitedHealthcare, as well as Aetna, Humana and CIGNA Corp. had combined profits of $12.2 billion last year, up 56% from the prior year.

The report comes as Congress and President Barack Obama continue to wrestle over how to expand coverage to the uninsured in the U.S. through comprehensive federal health care reform. Advocates for change say the profits of the public corporations show the need for reform.

“Big insurance made more money by insuring fewer people and by trying to get rid of the people who need health care the most,” said Richard Kirsch, national campaign manager of HCAN, in a statement. “For-profit insurance companies cater to Wall Street at the expense of Main Street. Congress must listen to us, not the insurance lobbyists, and finish comprehensive health care reform the right way now.”

Four of the five companies saw earnings increase, with Philadelphia, Pa.-based CIGNA’s profits increasing 356%, HCAN said. It said four of the five companies covered fewer people through private coverage, which in large part was caused by the employers shedding employees, thus making them ineligible for employer-sponsored coverage. That in turn led to increases among four of the five in the number of people covered through public plans, including Medicaid, the State Children’s Health Insurance Plan and Medicare, according to the report.

The industry set the record while 27 million people who had health insurance in 2008 lost it last year, according to the group.

Of the estimated $809 billion spent on private health insurance in 2009, the five biggest, for-profit companies captured $232 billion, according to HCAN’s analysis of financial reports, which also noted that those company’s market share has increased steadily through mergers and acquisitions.