INTERVIEW-Wellpoint CEO wary of U.S. government health plan
* Government insurance plan not a level playing field
* Insurers offer alternatives in health reform debate
By Lisa Richwine
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Expanding healthcare access through the individual insurance market could eliminate the need for a public insurance plan, the chief executive of Wellpoint Inc said Tuesday.
Creating a government-run insurance plan to compete with companies such as Wellpoint has emerged as one of the most contentious issues in President Barack Obama's drive to overhaul the U.S. healthcare system.
"We do have concerns about the government plan," Wellpoint Chief Executive Angela Braly said in an interview with Reuters Financial Television. "It's really not a level playing field if the government comes in and participates in the market on a different footing."
Obama aims to sign a bill this year making sweeping changes in the healthcare system.
Most Americans -- about 170 million -- get private health coverage through an employer, although some buy their own private insurance through the individual market. Others are eligible for public programs such as Medicare for the elderly and disabled or Medicaid for the poor.
But many go without coverage, paying instead out of their own pockets for care if they get sick, or trying to do without medical attention. A new public insurance program would offer coverage to people who currently do not have it or want an alternative to private insurance.
Leading congressional Democrats have embraced the idea, but the specifics are still being worked out.
Braly said insurers are advocating alternatives that would make the individual insurance market an option for more people.
Insurers "have offered a proposal for the individual market that would make sure there is access for folks to get into the individual marketplace and we wouldn't need to have a government plan option," she said.
Asked if the insurance industry would oppose a health reform effort if it included a government-run option, Braly said: "We ought to really have a meaningful dialogue around the individual market reform proposal we have put forward" in recent weeks.
The insurance industry is seeking a mandate for Americans to buy coverage, arguing it would help insurers make premium prices more affordable for the sick and also allow them to end the practice of excluding coverage for preexisting conditions and charging higher premiums to sick people.
Wellpoint, the largest U.S. health insurer by membership, announced Monday the sale of its prescription business NextRx.
Indianapolis-based WellPoint plans to use $2 billion of the proceeds to buy back its stock, $500 million to pay down debt and $375 million for other corporate purposes. It expects to use $1.8 billion for taxes and other costs tied to the deal.
Braly said Wellpoint "absolutely" may use some of the $375 million to fund future acquisitions.
"We think now is the time to consider combinations. The scale and the capabilities that we bring through Wellpoint is something that makes us very attractive to potential partners," she added. (Reporting by Lisa Richwine; Editing by Andre Grenon)