WellPoint Inc. shareholders rejected a call for more disclosure about the health insurer's political contributions Wednesday during a shout-filled, contentious annual meeting.
Union representatives and other protesters repeatedly interrupted Chairwoman and CEO Angela Braly after she opened the meeting and introduced proposals for shareholder voting. One person presented a petition she said was signed by 15,000 people asking the Indianapolis company for more disclosure.
Shareholders have added proposals calling for more political spending insight to the proxy statements of several companies this spring. Those include the Union Pacific railroad and Pfizer Inc., the world's largest drugmaker.
At WellPoint's meeting in a downtown Indianapolis hotel near corporate headquarters, protesters stood up to talk over Braly shortly after she began speaking. Security personnel, who lined the room, escorted the first person to do this from the meeting. More audience members then continued to interrupt Braly.
"Full disclosure of corporate spending on political activities is in the best interest of shareholders," audience member Dave Wallace shouted as Braly told him in a monotone he was speaking out of order, before the meeting's question-and-answer session. Wallace is the president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME, Local 1117 in Torrance, Calif.
Braly said her company complies with all legal disclosure requirements and also publishes an extensive report on its contributions and lobbying. WellPoint later said a total of 83 percent of shareholders voting rejected the proposal calling for greater disclosure. Company officials also said a similar measure was rejected a couple of years ago.
Bobby Jones, an AFSCME representative from New Hampshire, asked Braly if she would commit to cutting ties with the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a conservative nonprofit group that brings together lawmakers and private sector organizations to develop legislation and policy.
ALEC has taken criticism from unions and liberal activists for a number of issues. It has drawn heat, in particular, for its support of so-called "Stand Your Ground" laws that are a point of contention in the wake of the shooting of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. Several companies that have previously supported ALEC financially, including Coca-Cola Co. and McDonald's Corp., have said they are no longer members.
Jones said ALEC also opposes the health care overhaul, which aims to provide insurance coverage to millions of Americans, and he pressed Braly to commit to cutting ties as well.
Braly said WellPoint made no contributions this year and engages only "in public policy issues that are core to our business." Braly said the company needs flexibility for funding on public policy issues and "will make these considerations very carefully."
Before the meeting, about 50 protesters marched outside the hotel site, with many carrying mops and wearing white jumpsuits with the phrase "WellPoint cleanup crew" written on the back. Another held a sign that said "WellPoint's political spending makes our families sick."
WellPoint placed 45th on the latest Fortune 500 rankings and provides health insurance to nearly 34 million people. It is the second-largest U.S. insurer, trailing only UnitedHealth Group Inc. It runs Blue Cross Blue Shield plans in 14 states, including California, New York and Ohio.
Protesters frequently target WellPoint's spring annual meetings, most often to complain about the company's profits and insurance premiums that grow much faster than wages and inflation.
Shares of WellPoint climbed 34 cents to $65.96 in late-morning trading, while broader trading indexes also rose slightly.