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Insurance rate-hike initiative gains high-profile backers

The proposed California ballot measure to tighten regulation of health insurance rates receives funding from hedge-fund manager Thomas Steyer and Roll International Chairman Stewart Resnick.

May 01, 2012|By Chad Terhune, Los Angeles Times

Several high-profile business names, such as San Francisco hedge-fund manager Thomas Steyer and agribusiness magnate Stewart Resnick, have contributed to a proposed ballot measure seeking tighter regulation of health insurance rates, according to campaign finance records.

These contributions were among $1.5 million in donations reported Monday to the California Secretary of State by Consumer Watchdog, the Santa Monica group leading the ballot drive. A coalition of insurers, hospitals, doctors and business groups opposing the measure has reported $367,200 in donations. The majority of that has come from five big health insurers: Anthem Blue Cross, Kaiser Foundation Health Plan Inc., Health Net Inc., Blue Shield of California and United Healthcare Insurance Co.

The proposed ballot initiative seeks to give the California Department of Insurance the same rate-setting authority over health insurance that it already holds over auto and property coverage. This issue has generated intense interest among many consumers hit with substantial rate hikes on their health coverage in recent years. Opponents say that the measure would create a costly new bureaucracy and that it doesn't address the underlying reasons for rising premiums.

Consumer Watchdog, which championed California's Proposition 103 in 1988 that enacted rate controls on auto and property insurance, is trying to get 505,000 valid signatures by mid-May to qualify the measure for the Nov. 6 election.

The group said it has collected about 550,000 signatures thus far and needs to collect an additional 200,000 in the next two weeks to ensure it has enough valid names. Actor Dennis Quaid is lending his name to the signature drive in an email going out this week to more than 1 million Californians, according to Consumer Watchdog.

Steyer was the biggest individual donor, at $200,000, among the donations reported to the state. He is the founder and managing partner of Farallon Capital Management in San Francisco.

Resnick, who gave $25,000, is the billionaire chairman of Roll International Corp., which includes brands such as Pom Wonderful pomegranate juice, Fiji Water and companies that produce Wonderful Pistachios and Cuties clementines. Another contributor was Paul Goldenberg, founder of the Paul's TV retail chain, who gave $25,000.

Prime Healthcare Services Inc., a hospital chain based in Ontario, broke with the California Hospital Assn. by donating $10,000 for the proposed ballot measure. A spokesman said the company "believes that Consumer Watchdog has brought to the forefront valid concerns."

Californians Against Higher Healthcare Costs, the coalition of insurers, doctors, hospitals and business groups, said the majority of Consumer Watchdog's contributions come from the group itself and trial lawyers.

"This flawed measure is a trial lawyer bonanza that will end up costing patients and consumers," said Fiona Hutton, a spokeswoman for the opposition.

Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, said the initiative enjoys "a broad base of support from different parts of the community and it will only grow because this cause impacts everyone."

chad.terhune@latimes.com

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