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Legislation by Intimidation

Proponents of government-run health insurance are having a hard time finding friends. With even President Obama now expressing doubts about the idea, its advocates apparently have decided to look for enemies instead.

On Wednesday, 52 insurance companies received a letter from House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Representative Bart Stupak, D-Mich., who chairs the Committee’s subcommittee on oversight and investigations. The lawmakers asked for the names of all employees who were paid more than $500,000 in a single year anytime between 2003 and 2008. The letter also demanded information about the companies’ income from insurance premiums, the expenses for conferences and gatherings, and the compensation of board members.

Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for the Washington-based industry group America’s Health Insurance Plans, said the letters were “an effort to change the debate to focus on health insurers rather than focus on the solutions to the health care concerns that the American people have raised.”

It appears Waxman and Stupak plan to launch a last-ditch effort to get the public back on their side by caricaturing private insurance company executives as greedy thugs who rake in cash while the rest of us struggle to pay premiums.

Back in March, lawmakers and the White House used a similar approach to deflect criticism of the financial system bailout. The targets then were AIG employees. In the months after last year’s market meltdown, AIG executives worked around the clock to keep their company afloat. Without their help no amount of money could have saved the insurance giant, whose collapse probably would have triggered a global economic disaster. Many of those workers received job offers from more stable companies but stayed because AIG promised to reward them for their efforts.

When those rewards came, however, and the employees received the bonuses the company was contractually obliged to give them, they were vilified. Politicians and journalists paraded in front of cameras to heap abuse on these people, whom they accused of greed and insensitivity.

The names of bonus recipients were released. Protesters turned up at executives’ homes. Privacy and security concerns were ignored as elected officials pursued their chosen scapegoats. One executive, James Haas, whose home was targeted by protestors, told reporters, “There are kids involved, there have been death threats.” The company advised staff, “At night, when possible, travel in pairs and always park in well-lit areas.”

In an open letter published in The New York Times and addressed to Edward M. Liddy, the chief executive of AIG, Jake DeSantis, an executive vice president of the financial products unit, announced his resignation. He said that he and others who had done nothing to contribute to AIG’s fall had “been betrayed by A.I.G. and [were] being unfairly persecuted by elected officials.”

Unlike Waxman and Stupak, whose rock-solid health coverage is funded by taxpayers, I pay to cover my own family and more than a dozen employees, to the tune of about $130,000 a year. I have the decency to know that the compensation of my insurers’ executives, beyond that which already is disclosed in regulatory filings, is none of my business. I have the common sense to know that painting a target on somebody’s back, especially somebody identified as having money, can lead to people getting hurt.

Thugs tend to be short on decency and common sense. The thugs in this picture are the ones who sent the letter, not those who received it. I fervently hope the insurance companies involved stand up to the pressure and decline to release any information not already in the public domain. While fellow Californian Nancy Pelosi might be willing to back a Waxman subpoena with a citation for contempt of Congress, I doubt any such citation would withstand a court challenge. Even if it did, private companies need to be willing to defend the privacy and safety of honest employees.

Congressional Democrats are looking for a way to divert the public’s attention, and nothing spells distraction like inciting an angry mob. Waxman and Stupak may be satisfied only when they have spilled blood, metaphorically or perhaps literally, in the name of health care.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Anyone Can Achieve Wealth,” and Chapter 19, “Assisting Aging Parents.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s previous book Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55.

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