A U.S. Senate Democrat asked the top 15 health insurers to explain what portion of premiums go to profits versus patient care, putting further pressure on the companies to explain their business practices as Congress considers sweeping health reform legislation.
In letters to the companies on Friday, Sen. John Rockefeller also asked for information about how insurers disclose financial practices to customers.
Earlier this week, senior Democrats on the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee asked dozens of health insurers for details about executive compensation and other practices.
"Too often consumers are not getting a fair deal for what they pay, they are not getting the protections they deserve, and the insurance companies are awash in profit," Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said in a statement.
The letters were sent to companies including UnitedHealth Group, Wellpoint and Aetna, the committee said.
Health insurers have come under attack amid a contentious debate about how to overhaul the U.S. healthcare system to cover the currently uninsured and cut costs. A key issue is whether the government should offer its own health insurance option to provide competition for the private companies.
America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), an industry group, said insurers provide detailed financial information to federal and state regulators. Health plans rank 35th among Fortune magazine's profitability rankings with an average profit margin of 2.2 percent, AHIP spokesman Robert Zirkelbach said.
"Some in Washington are trying to shift the focus to the insurance industry rather than talk about solutions to the health care concerns raised by the American people," Zirkelbach said.
Representatives of Aetna and Wellpoint said they were reviewing the letter. UnitedHealth spokesman John Parker confirmed the company had received the letter but had no further comment.