This post was reported by Nick Pinto, and written by Nick Pinto and Zachary Roth
A North Carolina health insurer is facing a major backlash in the wake of its campaign to enlist customers in the fight against health-care reform.
The state’s Insurance Commissioner has begun an inquiry into a mailer sent recently by Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina — and first revealed last month by TPMmuckraker — that urged customers to lobby Senator Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) to vote against the public option. As we reported Tuesday, the state’s Attorney General has opened his own probe of a barrage of follow-up robo-calls generated by the insurer. And state lawmakers continue to express their own and their constituents’ outrage at the effort, with one legislator telling TPMmuckraker that some recipients of the mailer sent it back to BCBS attached to a brick.
Johanna Royo, a spokeswoman for Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin, told TPMmuckraker that her boss is on the case. A group of North Carolina legislators on Tuesday sent a letter to BCBS-NC — which controls 97 percent of the state’s health-insurance market — asking for information about the mailer. Said Royo: “We are requiring Blue Cross to respond to the legislators’ letter.” She added: “The Commissioner of Insurance understands the lawmakers’ concerns.”
Meanwhile, Attorney General Roy Cooper’s probe of the robo-calls, which began last month, continues. A letter from Cooper’s office to a state legislator, sent Monday and obtained by TPMmuckraker, suggests that the investigation may have forestalled further robo-calls from the health insurer. “We have since been informed that a planned second round of calls was postponed as a result of our inquiries,” the letter says.
In a November 9 letter to BCBS-NC officials, also obtained by TPMmuckraker, Assistant Attorney General David Kirkman asked the company for a variety of information regarding its robo-calls, including a copy of each recorded message and an explanation of what criteria were used to determine who would receive the calls.
Robo-calls are illegal in most situations in North Carolina. Tax-exempt charitable and civic organizations are allowed an exception to this law — BCBS-NC is organized as a non-profit — but only if their calls clearly identify the caller, state the nature of the call, and provide contact information. Kirkman noted in the letter that “our initial assessment is that certain calls purported to be made on behalf of BCBS-NC do not appear to meet the third requirement of that exemption provision.”
And lawmakers are also keeping the heat on. State Sen. Eleanor Kinnaird, one of the first legislators to call for an investigation into the mailings, told TPMmuckraker she thinks the insurer’s communications blitz may have backfired. “My constituents are very angry,” said Kinnaird, a Democrat. In some instances, she said, recipients did send the attached pre-paid postcard to Sen. Hagan, but altered it to express their support for a public option. “Other people sent the mailing back, return to sender, attached to a brick,” she added.