Applying Public Interest Capitalism to the health insurance industry

Former health care executive Wendell Potter has been calling attention to how health insurance companies increase shareholder value at the expense of their customers and the broader public interest.  Potter left an executive post at CIGNA to become a senior fellow at the Center for Media and Democracy.  His descriptions of how insurance firms short-change their customers and cynically manipulate the political process to serve there masters on Wall Street are a powerful indictment of the shareholder value maximization ideology.  Potter’s interview with Bill Moyers, below, is well worth watching.

Wendell Potter interview with Bill Moyers from YouTube

From a Public Interest Capitalism perspective, one of the most interesting characteristics of the interview is that neither Moyers nor Potter ever questions the ideology of shareholder value maximization–Milton Friedman’s doctrine that a company exists only to make as much money as possible for its shareholders.  So we have only two choices: healthcare managed by greedy corporations who will (metaphorically) throw their customers under the bus to boost profits, or healthcare managed by the government.  Although I have nothing against healthcare managed by the government, my research on Public Interest Capitalism suggests another possibility: restructuring capitalism so that corporations seek to balance private profits and the public interest.

The idea of such enlightened corporate management may seem far-fetched, and it is far-fetched when economic institutions create overwhelming incentives for management to increase shareholder value regardless at any social cost.  But these incentives can be changed.  We could start by prohibiting compensation linked to share price (stock options and stock grants) in publicly traded companies.  Capping executive compensation at a multiple of the compensation of the lowest-paid employee–perhaps forty times–would probably help, too, by limiting the ability of senior executives to profit personally from abusive tactics.  Then limit dividends and voting rights to shareholders who have owned shares for at least five years, thereby reducing the influence of activist investors and hedge funds while protecting the legitimate interests of long-term shareholders.  Requiring that insurance companies disclose, in a standard and easy-to-understand format, performance metrics related to patient satisfaction, recision rates, and so forth would help the public identify abusive firms.

In light of our shareholder-oriented corporate governance institutions, it’s easy to understand why health insurance companies behave the way they do.  Institutions determine whether we can cooperate productively, or whether we slip into wasteful and socially injurious redistributive conflicts, as in the case of the American health insurance industry.  But just because we have developed pathological institutions doesn’t mean that managers necessarily want to behave this way–Potter obviously did not–or that we have to stand idly by as these institutions wreak havoc on our healthcare system and our government.  As Nobel-prize-winning economist Douglass North points out in his book Institutions, Institutional Change, and Economic Performance, institutions are “humanly devised constraints that shape human interaction”.  Humans devised them, and humans can change them.

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