Bernie Sanders rails on Michigan health CEO's pay

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
FILE - In this Nov. 27, 2018, file photo, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks about his new book at a George Washington University/Politics and Prose event in Washington. Leading congressional liberals are unveiling a package of bills that aims to reduce what Americans pay for prescription drugs by linking prices to lower costs in other countries. Sanders and Maryland Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings plan to introduce three bills Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders is railing against the pay of Michigan's most influential insurance executive as he continues to call for creation of a single-payer national health care system.

The Vermont U.S. senator and self-avowed democratic socialist on Wednesday highlighted the $19.2 million earned last year by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan CEO Daniel Loepp, who last year served on Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s transition team.

In a Facebook post, Sanders said Loepp’s 2018 pay increased 43 percent over the prior year “while 790,000 Michigan residents go without health care and many more can't afford to use the insurance they have.”

“We must pass a single-payer health care system so ordinary Americans won't have to forgo getting the care they need because they can't afford it,” Sanders said.

A Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan official said the insurer had no comment. But the health insurance giant last week touted Loepp’s work after publicly disclosing his pay.

"Mr. Loepp is running a great business," said Andy Hetzel, Blue Cross' vice president of corporate communications. "We think he earns the money he makes."

The nonprofit Detroit mutual health insurer reported its second-highest profit in the past decade. The Blues also have been a big supporter of the Affordable Care Act.

Loepp's base salary remained flat at $1.5 million, but a bonus based on annual and long-term goals established by the company's board rose more than 50 percent to $16.2 million. He also received $1.4 million in other benefits, including a car allowance and life insurance.

Sanders, 77, won Michigan’s presidential primary in 2016, scoring a surprise win over eventual party nominee Hillary Clinton. His call for a “Medicare for All” government health insurance system has been increasingly embraced by mainstream Democrats.

Other Democratic presidential candidates competing to take on Republican President Donald Trump in 2020 have backed some form of Medicare for All, including Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kristen Gillbrand of New York, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and Julian Castro, former secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Critics say a single-payer health care system could cost trillions of dollars to implement, but Sanders and supporters argue it could ultimately drive down health care costs. Estimates on the price and viability of Medicare for All proposals have varied.

Sanders announced his 2020 bid in February and formally launched his campaign last week with a raucous rally in Brooklyn, where he predicted the United States "will join every other major country on earth and guarantee health care to all people as a right."

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan President and CEO Dan Loepp

The presidential hopeful shared a Michigan uninsured number that appears outdated. According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates from 2017, the latest year available, about 510,000 Michigan residents were uninsured, down from more than 1 million in 2013.

Blue Cross emerged as a sticking point in Michigan’s 2018 gubernatorial election after company executives hosted a Detroit fundraiser for Whitmer, who has called Loepp a “friend” and said he first suggested she consider running for public office.

Democratic primary opponents Abdul El-Sayed and Shri Thanedar both criticized Whitmer for her connections to the health insurance giant, and Republican nominee Bill Schuette claimed she was “bought off” by health insurance executives.

Sanders endorsed El-Sayed in the primary but backed Whitmer in the general election and campaigned for her in Michigan.