Wendell Potter came face-to-face with the fallout from the free-market health care system in 2007. When visiting his parents in Tennessee, he went to the Wise County Fairgrounds, a few miles away across the Virginia border. There, he witnessed thousands of people lined up in barns and animal stalls to receive free health care from doctors and nurses volunteering their time.
"I couldn't believe what I saw," he says.
The next year, Potter left his job as vice president for communications for insurance giant CIGNA HealthCare and began blowing the whistle on an industry that he says does everything it can to make money, regardless of the human cost. He's since been featured on multiple news programs and, in 2010, published Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans.
Potter now is campaigning for publicly funded elections to remove corporate money from influencing Congress. He's a senior analyst at the investigative journalism nonprofit Center for Public Integrity and a consumer liaison representative for the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.
On Wednesday, April 25, he'll be in Colorado Springs to speak about the health insurance industry's deceptive practices, such as planting messages like the "slippery slope to socialism" or "government takeover" or "health care rationing," which he believes came from PR shops like CIGNA's in attempts to protect the industry's billion-dollar profits.
In the interview excerpts below, Potter outlines what's wrong with the industry and how it might be fixed.
Indy: In testimony before the Senate Commerce, Science and Technology Committee in June 2009, you disclosed how insurance companies, as part of their efforts to boost profits, have engaged in practices that have resulted in millions of Americans being forced into the ranks of the uninsured. Can you give us a few examples?
Wendell Potter: One is by refusing to sell coverage to people who have been sick in the past, including people who were born with birth defects or who developed chronic illnesses during their childhood or regular life. I saw one estimate of one Blue Cross plan in Tennessee that declined or refused to sell coverage to at least 30 percent of applicants, and undoubtedly that was because these people had health conditions that made them, in the eyes of insurance companies, uninsurable.
They also have been jacking up the rates to the point that many people even who are healthy can't afford to get coverage. They've also been jacking up rates on small businesses over many years to the point many small businesses can no longer provide coverage to their employees. If one employee gets sick, an insurance company jacks up the price so high that a small business has no choice but to drop coverage for everybody.
Indy: What's wrong with companies that consider returns for stockholders as more important than people's lives?
WP: What is wrong is we allow ourselves to consider these problems in the abstract. These companies and these executives know intellectually that we have 50 million people without insurance. They know millions more are underinsured. But they can let it be just an intellectual exercise for them. They don't allow themselves to think of those individuals as real, live human beings.
That health care expedition I went to, two-thirds of the people there had jobs but they couldn't afford insurance or they couldn't buy it at any price. We don't think beyond our own circumstances, and we know we have a job to do and people are afraid to rock the boat.
Indy: What was the most blatant example of the industry's deception, and how will the truth win out? Or can it?
WP: One of the most blatant things they do is set up front groups to try to manipulate public opinion and make people think things that aren't necessarily true. I wrote about the movie Sicko, Michael Moore's movie, and how much money the industry spent to discredit the movie and Michael Moore, including setting up a front group that was called Health Care America, purported to be a grassroots organization — but it was nothing more than a shill that was financed by insurers and drug companies and run by a big PR firm.
During the debate on health care reform, it was disclosed that a reporter that was doing some investigative reporting found that the health insurance industry had funneled $85 million through America's Health Insurance Plans, which was a big lobbying group, to the [U.S.] Chamber of Commerce to finance its anti-public-option campaign.
Indy: You support health care reform, but can President Obama's overhaul work without a public option? Doesn't it just help the insurance companies more by requiring people to buy insurance without any premium caps?
WP: I felt strongly the public option was needed, and was very disappointed in the administration for not really going to the mat to protect it and making sure it was part of the law. The insurance industry had two objectives: to make sure there was an individual mandate that we all had to buy insurance, and the other, no public option. They're so powerful in Washington that they were able to get both of those.
Even though there is no public option, the reform law does a lot of good things. It does make a lot of insurance companies' most egregious practices illegal. But it does guarantee them a steady revenue stream because of the individual mandate and the subsidies the government will pay to help people buy coverage if they can't afford it.
Indy: Can we kiss the public option goodbye forever?
WP: Not necessarily. Some of the states will enact a public option at some point. Connecticut came close to doing it. So I think we will see that some states will do it. I think we have as much reform out of the federal government as we'll see, and any reforms will come from the state level.
Indy: What will the Supreme Court do in June in its ruling on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act?
WP: I tend to think they will uphold the law. But I could be wrong, of course. I think the more liberal judges will vote to uphold it, and as far as the conservative judges, it will be interesting to see which conservatives they will agree with — the ones who came up with the individual mandate or those who oppose it.
Keep in mind the individual mandate was originally a conservative idea that came out of the Heritage Foundation in Washington, one of the most prominent conservative think tanks. It was embraced by many conservative members of Congress in the 1990s when it was developed. They turned against it when the Democratic Congress and the Democratic president embraced it. It's blatant politics.
Indy: The bottom line here is corporate greed, is it not? And the greed and corruption of congressmen as well? How can that ever be changed?
WP: Very good question, and it's at the heart of what we need to do. And that's where my time and attention will be focused next. And that is to draw attention to the corrosive effect of unlimited corporate money on elections and to influence public policy.
We've got to come to understand how we are in danger of losing our way of life and our form of government that we've cherished that we think we have but in many cases is already eroding. We've got to come to terms with reality: Having unlimited money in which a very few wealthy individuals and corporations can influence elections [means] we will continue to have public policy that is passed that benefits the corporate interest rather than regular people.