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Higgins goes national to fight tax breaks for insurers accused of cheating taxpayers

WASHINGTON – Rep. Brian Higgins may be more well-known for fighting for Buffalo's waterfront and Central Terminal than he is for fighting over major national issues such as health care reform, but that seems to be changing.

Higgins, D-Buffalo, has been increasingly raising his voice on national issues. He proved it last week when he took the lead in decrying the fact that the recently passed Republican health care bill gives huge tax breaks to private health insurers – including those who are under investigation for possibly cheating the federal government out of billions of dollars.

The company at the center of that controversy, UnitedHealth Group, serves 26,831 seniors in the eight counties of Western New York through Medicare Advantage, the program the company is accused of cheating.

Higgins railed against the huge national insurer and other private health insurers last week in a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, on the House floor, in a House Ways and Means Committee hearing and in phone calls to The Buffalo News.

He seemed especially angry about the fact that UnitedHeath Group executives would get a $15.5 million tax cut under the GOP health legislation while the Justice Department is suing the company. The Justice Department says the insurer bilked the government's Medicare Advantage program for years.

"This is a blatant violation of the public trust this Congress took an oath to protect," Higgins said on the House floor.

Despite his reputation as a Buffalo-first congressman, Higgins has spoken out more frequently on national issues in recent years. So far this year, only 20 lawmakers have spoken on the House floor more frequently than Higgins, according to figures compiled by C-SPAN. And in the two years before that, he ranked 17th out of 435 House members in terms of House floor speeches.

What Higgins says on national issues is likely to get more attention now that he has, through seniority, landed a seat on the House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees tax policy.

Higgins said he's learning new details of more far-reaching legislation from that perch than he did on his earlier committees, Homeland Security and Foreign Affairs.

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Now, he said, he sits in committee meetings with the language of the nation's most important tax and health care legislation right there in front of him, where he can plow into its details.

And he's speaking out about what he's finding – most notably on the controversy surrounding UnitedHealth and other privately held insurers.

Whistleblowers have accused UnitedHealth of concocting an elaborate scheme to extract extra money from the program.

Designed to give seniors a health care option similar to an HMO, Medicare Advantage plans serve more than half of Western New York seniors.

And while the majority of those seniors get their plans through locally based nonprofit health insurers, UnitedHealth entered the Buffalo market a few years ago – which why the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of New York is involved in the case.

In the areas where Minnesota-based UnitedHealth offers Medicare Advantage plans, the company overcharged the government by "hundreds of millions – and likely billions – of dollars," the Justice Department said.

The company denied those charges, telling The New York Times: “We are confident our company and our employees complied with the government’s Medicare Advantage program rules."

But the Justice Department is also investigating whether the overbilling scheme extended to four other private insurers: Aetna, Humana, Health Net and Cigna’s Bravo Health.

In light of that, Higgins can't believe House Republicans want to give tax breaks to health insurance company executives – especially in an Obamacare replacement bill that would likely result in millions of Americans losing their health insurance.

"Shockingly, the House Republicans gave a $78 million tax cut to the very companies that are under investigation," Higgins said on the House floor last Thursday.

Higgins said his advocacy on that issue should not come as a surprise. He said he's long raised his voice not only on national affairs but also on foreign relations. He has traveled to 30 countries to meet with foreign leaders. Most recently, on a swing through Eastern Europe, he met with former Polish President Lech Walesa.

"These are dimensions to my work here in D.C. that are not widely known," Higgins said.

Similarly, there are parts of the controversial Republican health bill that are not widely known, and Higgins vowed to keep on talking about the provision that gives tax breaks to companies the government is accusing of corruption.

"I don't think that anybody else has made that connection," Higgins said.

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