United, WellPoint accused of creating artificial grassroots lobbying efforts

A consumer group says insurers illegally pressured employees to use company time to try to influence the health system reform debate, a charge they deny.

By Emily Berry — Posted Sept. 24, 2009

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A California consumer group has asked the state's attorney general to investigate whether two health plans illegally encouraged employees to lobby on company time.

Consumer Watchdog, a California-based, liberal-leaning advocacy group, in a Sept. 2 letter said that UnitedHealth Group and WellPoint "almost certainly" broke the law by offering to help workers make calls or write to elected officials about health system reform.

Spokeswoman Christine Gasparac said the attorney general's office was reviewing the request.

California state law bars employers from "controlling or directing, or tending to control or direct the political activities or affiliations of employees." Companies found to have violated the statute can be fined as much as $10,000 per incident.

In an Aug. 13 e-mail, United employees were told that a representative of its lobbying organization, United for Health Reform, might contact them during business hours to see if they needed any help calling elected officials or writing letters.

WellPoint, in an e-mail to employees Aug. 27, said it had launched a "grassroots" Web site, called WellPoint Health Action Network, "to assist you with contacting your elected officials as well as notifying friends, neighbors and family members about this important issue" (link).

The health plans have not denied sending the e-mails. However, they said no laws were broken, and they were only trying to help inform employees in the midst of a contentious health system reform debate.

WellPoint spokeswoman Peggy Hinz said, "We believe it is important and permissible to provide up-to-date information about health reform to our associates."

In a Sept. 3 statement, UnitedHealth Group said, "we have made information available to our employees for them to participate, voluntarily, in congressional town hall meetings, or to write or call their elected officials. Furthermore, we have told our employees to participate as individuals, not on behalf of the company, with their unique messages and personal perspectives."

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