Wendell Potter: "My Apologies to Michael Moore and the Health Insurance Industry"

Michael Moore, Wendell Potter, Alex PotterIn advance of my appearance with Michael Moore on Countdown with Keith Olbermann tonight on MSNBC (8 and 11 p.m. ET), I would like to offer an apology to both Moore and his arch enemy, the health insurance industry, which spent a lot of policyholder premiums in 2007 to attack his movie, Sicko. I need to apologize to Moore for the role I played in the insurance industry's public relations attack campaign again him and Sicko, which was about the increasingly unfair and dysfunctional U.S. health care system. (I was head of corporate communications at one of the country's biggest insurance companies when I left my job in May 2008.) And I need to apologize to health insurers for failing to note in my new book, Deadly Spin, that the front group they used to attack Moore and Sicko -- Health Care America -- was originally a front group for drug companies. APCO Worldwide, the PR firm that operated the front group for insurers during the summer of 2007, was outraged -- outraged, I tell you -- that I wrote in the book that the raison d'être for Health Care America was to disseminate the insurance industry's talking points as part of a multi-pronged, fear-mongering campaign against Moore and his movie. An APCO executive told a reporter who had reviewed the book that I was guilty of one of the deceptive PR tactics I condemned: the selective disclosure of information to manipulate public opinion.

Which Industry Was Really Behind "Health Care America?"

Well, shucks. Ignorance is no defense, I know, but no one at APCO ever told me, even when I was on the insurance industry's side, that Health Care America's first benefactor was Big Pharma. Here are the offending sentences, excerpted from the chapter entitled "The Campaign Against Sicko," in which I described a top-secret meeting of insurance company flacks -- including me -- where APCO and America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), the lobbying group for insurers, laid out the industry's strategy:

(AHIP's Mike) Tuffin and (APCO's Robert) Schooling said they had already begun recruiting conservative and free-market think tanks, including the American Enterprise Institute and the Galen Institute, as third-party allies. Those allies, they said, would be working aggressively to discredit Moore and his movie. They then mentioned an ally that most of us had never heard of, Health Care America. It had been created by AHIP and APCO for the sole purpose of attacking Moore and his contention that people in countries with government-run systems spent far less and got better care than people in the United States. The sole reason Health Care America exists, they said, was to talk about the shortcomings of government-run systems.

I learned a few days ago from Jack O'Dwyer, longtime watchdog of the PR profession and publisher of O'Dwyer's PR Daily, that an APCO executive told him I had failed to disclose that APCO had originally set up Health Care America in 2006 with money primarily from big drug companies. Big Pharma was worried at the time that drug makers would be Moore's main target in the movie. Thinking ahead, they feared that being vilified in Sicko would increase the odds that lawmakers would cast them as the chief villain when the health care reform debate got underway. O'Dwyer blogged last Tuesday that, "Just about every known evil practice that PR has ever engaged in is described in 'Deadly Spin.' " He noted that I had mentioned APCO -- the second biggest firm in the O'Dwyer ranking, with $100.3 million in fees in 2009 -- several times in the book. APCO and AHIP must be paying a media monitoring service to alert them immediately when I am mentioned in the media, as they did for Michael Moore and Sicko three years ago. Within hours, APCO Senior Vice President William Pierce sent O'Dwyer an email to challenge my credibility because of my failure to disclose Health Care America's original incarnation. He's right --partially. I should have pointed out in the book that APCO repurposed Health Care America for the insurance industry and other special interests who were concerned that Sicko might lead to reforms that would threaten their profits, too. I would have disclosed it if I had known about it. Unlike PR people who practice the dark arts of PR, I had no intention of misleading anyone.

Now, Even More Info About "Health Care America"

After hearing from O'Dwyer, I discovered even more about Health Care America than I had recalled. I came across a couple of interesting articles and a press release from 2006 that Pierce had sent to the media. (He was listed as the organization's media contact, although he was an employee of APCO during the entire brief existence of Health Care America. If you called the number on the press release, you would have reached Pierce at his APCO office.) I also found Health Care America's federal tax returns for 2006 and 2007, which were helpful in understanding just how much of a front group it really was. In a press release dated April 6, 2006, Pierce announced that Health Care America -- which he described as a non-partisan, non-profit organization --had "opened for business as a champion for common-sense solutions to improving our health care system without furthering government control."

The Old PR Dodge and Weave

In one of the hardest-working paragraphs of spin I've come across in a long time, the release went on to quote Sarah Berk, the outfit's executive director, as saying: "We will promote access, choice, innovation, quality and competition in the U.S. health care system. And we will highlight how government-controlled systems around the world limit payment choice, stifle innovation and force thousands to wait for health care services in the U.S." (Note to Ms. Berk: Please make plans now to join me next July at the 11th annual Remote Area Medical Free Health Care Expedition at the Wise County, Virginia Fairgrounds. If you come early enough, you can help other volunteers scrub and sanitize the animal stalls where doctors and nurses treat the thousands of patients who wait for a year to get the care they need, but cannot afford in the United States of America. Be forewarned, however. The experience might force you to consider another line of work, as it did for me when I went to Wise County in 2007. I knew then that my days as a spinmeister for the insurance industry were numbered.) The release did not disclose that Ms. Berk had recently left the American Hospital Association where, according to a story in Roll Call, she was director of "grassroots" advocacy and federal relations. Roll Call also reported that she earlier had "worked on health issues" for former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pennsylvania). So what were the common-sense solutions Health Care America promised to champion? Well, according to Roll Call, Ms. Berk "declined" to talk about them. "We're not there yet," Roll Call quoted her as saying. "We're not here to get in the weeds on issues." That was not the only declining she did that day. According to Roll Call, "Berk declined to name any specific companies or groups that were backing (Health Care America)." Oh, well. Roll Call did disclose a tidbit that the Pierce's press release did not: "Health Care America is represented by public affairs firm APCO Worldwide and is currently leasing office space from APCO." One has to wonder how much space APCO's front group leased from APCO. Berk was identified as the only employee, although she was quoted in Roll Call as saying that she planned to hire at least one other person within three months.

Undisclosed Sources of Income, Mysterious Expenditures and "Virtual Offices"

According to the Form 990 Health Care America filed with the IRS for 2006, it took in $822,298.00 from undisclosed sources. Of that, $142,500 was paid out in compensation, presumably to Ms. Berk, and $9,000 was spent for "occupancy." Accounting and legal fees totaled nearly $47,000. By far the biggest expenditure -- $240,000 -- was for "consultant services." One has to wonder how much of that went to APCO. Health Care America's Form 990 for 2007 disclosed that Ms. Berk was even more handsomely rewarded for her work during the second and apparently final year of the organization's existence (I could not find a Form 990 for any subsequent year), one presumes because she apparently never got around to hiring anyone else and consequently had to work an average of 60 hours a week, or so she claimed. She was paid $197,917 in 2007. Legal and accounting fees skyrocketed to more than $80,000, and the amount spent for "occupancy" jumped to $15,870 in 2007. One has to wonder who got that $15,870. In the 2006 Form 990, Ms. Berk listed her office address as 1455 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Suite 400, Washington, D.C. 20004. That is not where APCO is located. In fact, that is the address of a "virtual office" at the Willard Office Building. Well, of course. How appropriate. Why would a front group need a real office? The Web site for the virtual office at the Willard lists these amenities: a prime business address; a "live" receptionist; a lobby greeter, a business support center, a client drop-off/pick-up point; and mail forwarding, all for $125 a month. That's a heck of a deal for an "office" in the heart of arguably the most important city on the planet. Note, however, that you will have to pay extra to have your organization's name in the lobby directory and to actually use a real office or conference room. You can rent a real office for $10-$35 an hour, which for some reason reminds me of the fleabag motels I've heard about that rent rooms by the hour. Make no mistake, though, the Willard is no fleabag. Here's a fun fact, noted on the Web site for Suite 400:

The Willard Office Building is nestled between the famous Willard Intercontinental Hotel, where the term 'lobbyist' was coined, and the Occidental Restaurant, where D.C.'s power brokers negotiate deals over fabulous American fare.

Go ahead. Google the address. You'll find that oodles of organizations claim to occupy Suite 400. Let's hope that all those folks don't show up for work on the same day.

Operating Front Groups Isn't Criminal, Just Shameful

While the Forms 990 disclosed some interesting information, they didn't disclose the details that would be most helpful in determining who is really behind Health Care America. The government doesn't require such disclosure, even though front groups play a major role in persuading people to think the way the groups' financiers want them to think and to do what they want them to do, such as disrupting Congressional Democrats' town hall meetings. The ultimate goal, of course, is to influence public policy. "Where's the felony Potter is saying took place?" Pierce asked O'Dwyer. There was no felony (that I have personal knowledge of), and I never said that anyone at APCO had committed one. That's the problem. Setting up and operating front groups -- and not having to disclose who is behind them -- is shameful and, according to the code of ethics of the Public Relations Society of America, unethical. But it's perfectly legal. So APCO, I've apologized for failing to disclose something I didn't know when I wrote Deadly Spin. Now it's your turn. How about you apologizing to the American people for the role you played in making it necessary for me to write the book in the first place. P.S.: I just received a message from an APCO spokesperson who wrote to chastise me for writing that the insurance industry would "push Moore off the cliff" in a worst-case scenario. "You know there was never any suggestion to do anyone personal harm," she wrote. Yes, I knew that and I wrote that. She should read the book. Here's what I wrote on page 38 of the chapter about Sicko:

Tuffin and Schooling wrapped up their presentation with a 'worse-case scenario' plan. If Sicko showed signs of being as influential in shaping public opinion on health care reform as An Inconvenient Truth had been in changing attitudes about climate change, then the industry would have to consider implementing a plan 'to push Moore off the cliff.' They didn't elaborate, and no one asked what they meant by that. We knew they didn't mean it literally -- that a hit man would be sent to take Moore out. Rather, an all-out effort would be made to depict Moore as someone intent on destroying the free-market health care system and with it, the American way of life.

The APCO spokesperson denied the firm had done research on Moore's family and said APCO "did not attempt to suppress turnout for the movie." I'll let the PR plan, which I first discussed on Bill Moyers Journal in July 2009, speak for itself. Moyers' staff obtained copies of May 2007 and June 2007 versions of the PR plan developed by APCO and AHIP. To view the interview and PDF versions of the documents, click this link. P.P.S: I also want to apologize to Moore for not disclosing until now that, while I was still working for the insurance industry, I traveled as an industry spy to his hometown of Bellaire, Michigan, to attend the official U.S. premiere of Sicko on June 16, 2007. Moore and I actually met that day, although he doesn't know it. (I didn't tell him who I was or who I worked for). The picture accompanying this story, taken at a pre-screening reception by another movie-goer, shows me on Moore's left and my son, Alex, on his right. Alex, who has always been a big fan of Moore's, traveled with me on the reconnaissance mission. Moore even autographed a Sicko poster for Alex. It's quite a memento.


I agree it takes courage to publicly admit your error. Especially one of this importance. Please keep helping to lift the vail of secrets on this industry. United Health cares latest profit statement shows where the money goes, and it isnt the people paying the premiums and being denied coverage. Wake up people!

I appreciate all the kind and supportive comments. I even appreciate the comments from critics, from those who don't think what I am now doing is quite enough to amend for my years in the insurance industry. I can't undo the past but I can continue working to make our health care system better and to inform people about how big corporations and their political and ideological allies use deceptive and sinister tactics to manipulate public opinion and influence public policy. Had I not spent 20 years inside the insurance industry, I would not know what I know and would not be in a position to blow the whistle. I am blessed and very grateful for all the support I have received from so many people over the past year and a half. I have much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. I hope all of you do as well. Be blessed. Wendell

I want to know what YOU are going to do about two friends of mine who died from heart disease because insurance companies wouldn't cover treatment, while you were whoring for corporate greed. I hope you DO accomplish something to balance out the karma you've earned. But I have nothing save contempt for your "apologies." ps. It's spelled "memento."

Dear Lee: Thanks for catching the memento. It's fixed. I'll leave your other comments to Wendell, but I would add that knowing him personally I can tell you that he is working hard to redress his past role in the industry through credibly countering their disinformation. And, he is a wonderful colleague and kind soul, who genuinely feels regret for the past. I think he is playing a critically important role fighting the industry now, and I am very grateful for his tremendous efforts to fight back against their spin. Lisa

Mr. Potter, thank you for stepping forward with your interviews and book. You are in a very unique position to help even more than you know. If you agree that campaign donations and corporate lobbying caused your industry to thrive at our expense, then please review the following articleand lend your expertise at "contact at Political Finance Reform dot org". You might be integral to putting a stop to all of this. Thank you Corporate Special Interest Influence Can Be Eliminated from Politics – Here’s How "Let us all pray for the day when we can look back on “The Era of Legalized Political Bribery” as we do slavery – and wonder in amazement how we ever allowed it to exist in the first place." JP Sayles Clearly our political system and government are broken and “Legalized Political Bribery” appears to be responsible. The following strategy proposed in Political Finance Reform will show that by redirecting 1/1000th of our revenue, it’s possible to ostracize the corporations and repair our political system. The Problem: Most politicians cannot gain office, maintain office, live like royalty while in office, retire like world class leaders, or even avoid a precipitous fall from grace upon job loss - without corporate money. Further, the need for a good policy record has been replaced by corporate sponsored political ads, made possible by 21st century media technologies our founding fathers could not have anticipated. Therefore, in the 21st century, anything short of corporate capitulation appears to be political suicide. Considering all of this, if you were an ambitious 21st century politician, who would you be loyal to? It certainly appears that whomever finances our politicians will win their loyalty. Therefore, allowing corporations to finance our politics is irrational and precisely what’s broken. What should be clear to us by now: Only 100% financial dependency upon the masses will provide the masses with the undivided loyalty of our politicians. Political Finance Reform – Dependency Equates To Loyalty Clearly the only truly substantive answer is to somehow find a way to coerce/cajole our lawmakers to legislate new law that would make it illegal for them to receive any funds and/or benefits from any source other than tax dollars. This is our proverbial catch 22. Logic mandates that it will be imperative to ensure equal, if not improved alternatives from tax dollars. Perhaps the missing piece to achieving meaningful campaign finance reform is not just replacing campaign fund contributions with tax dollars before and during office – but also the potential riches that corporations provide after office. The cost to finance political campaigns has averaged about $4 billion per election year over the past three election cycles (’04, ’06, ’08). Clearly we must finance this from public funds. Lawmakers with excess campaign funds (war chests, not to mention perks) can live like kings while in office and can make millions per year working as lobbyists for corporations upon retirement. Here’s the possible answer: It would cost approximately an additional $1.2 billion per year to offset what corporations currently provide while in office and in the political afterlife by adding a zero to their pay and improving their retirement benefits, ($25K per yr served) but their financial connections to corporations must be severed while serving and after serving. This dramatic improvement in personal financial benefits could also sufficiently incentivize them to legislate this systemic reform. The loyalty that 100% dependency will bring could possibly save trillions of dollars and quite possibly democracy itself. When combined with no longer needing to beg for campaign funds and the newfound ability to be honorable, would they say no to this offer? Would you? That’s win/win, corporations gone. The bottom line result: Corporate special interest groups will no longer own our government. The Strategic Redistribution of Already Outgoing but Completely Wasted Tax Dollars The conservative estimate to repair our broken political system by removing corporate money from our politics and replacing it with taxpayer dollars should only be about $5.2 billion per year, representing about 1/10 of 1% of our federal revenue. If we can fix precisely that which destroys our political system – and economy – by simply redirecting approximately 1/1000th of our revenue, who would say “no”? The only question remaining is: Can we get past our rage towards congress to act logically? Our desire to punish and/or remove our congressional leaders, while justifiable, nevertheless may have blinded us to the answer; designing a better system, demanding that new system, while simultaneously incentivizing Congress to legislate this systemic reform. Removal does not appear to be the answer because simply replacing politicians with new ones – or even changing parties – is not working and changes nothing, literally rendering our voting power impotent. With the money on the table, perhaps we could eliminate political bribery by “reforming the way our politics are financed” in a single, resounding, all encompassing, win/win constitutional amendment. It’s time to adapt and upgrade our political system from “1776 Democracy 1.0” to “21st Century Democracy 2.0”. Had we implemented this upgrade to our system a decade ago, would we revile Congress today? With our politicians’ undivided loyalty, what would bank, healthcare, energy and tax reform look like? end article Mr. Potter, please contact us, you might be able to help stop this from happening again.

“Here is a proposal that will save Social Security and the Federal government close to $50 billion per year. This is more than enough to pay for universal health care. Most office space is very expensive yet white collar workers only use it 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. This amounts to only 30% efficiency which is completely unacceptable in today’s economic and ecological environment. We can no longer afford to let all white-collar workers that still have jobs work banker’s hours when we can work two shifts per day in government and private industry and cut our overhead costs in half. This simple paradigm shifts solves three problems: It jumpstarts economy and fights poverty, cuts pollution, reduces budget deficits. If this bold idea is pursued aggressively, it would prevent future oil spills and save jobs, the budget, the economy and the environment and cost nothing. For links to Youtube and iReport videos go to http://whi­­tecollarg­r­eenspace­.b­logspot­.co­m/ I shared this plan with the Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming and Secretary Chu’s office at the Dept. of Energy. It is out of the box thinking that is based on proven principles, low cost, and with no negative environmental impact. Aggressively implementing it would be much less costly that another oil spill. This initiative is even more relevant since Bernanke stated that we must get the Federal deficit under control and Obama is ordering all dept’s to cut budgets 5%.

During Obama's whole campaign of trying to get Obamacare passed, he kept sending emails under Organizing For America daying that the insurance co's were spending big money to fight his plan and that I was going to soon see all these commercials from the insurance comps to fight it. I waited and waited. Still to this day, no commercials from any insurance comp. saying "Hey you don't want to buy our insurance" or "Gee, you don't wan't to be forced to buy our insurance"!! It seems that those companies to include my own personal employer actually gave Obama a ton of profits from my premiums to lobby to pass it! What did that South Carolina Rep say during the State of the Union?

Although it's a shame that Wendell felt pressure to remain silent for the years he was in the PR industry - it's always better late than never. Let's face it, many journalists and lawyers recycle news stories as their own and defend guilty parties, respectively. There doesn't seem to be a lot of outrage around that. I hardly think it's an easy decision to admit wrongdoing and take responsibility -- although it was a bit shocking to read such private confessions. And who cares if he is trying to sell his book? If you write a book, you want people to read it. Not knowing Michael Moore, I do appreciate his intelligence and acquisitiveness in his docs and invus and hope that he forgives and forgets -- and that others who aren't as personally affected take his cue. To think that WP should be held responsible for someone's aunt dying truly makes me wonder how many people on this message board are home-schooled and why they aren't spending their spare time reading books on the Trivium. -A Canadian bystander

It does no good to apologize now. It would have been much better to bring this information out before we all got stuck with the current take on the Health Insurance Bill. Then maybe we could have had a Health Care Bill.

As someone who lives in a European country with governmental health care, I had no clue what Michael Moore's film had caused as reactions, discussions, etc. in the United States. I actually just watched the film "Sicko" for the first time a few weeks ago. Now someone on a webboard I'm on linked to the public apology Mr. Potter made on TV. And I was stunned. This is a rather personal message, really, and I am not sure if it will reach Mr. Potter personally, but it was important for me to say this because really, it's a public issue, too (especially now): This must have taken a LOT of courage. Mr. Potter was facing public attack, and that's a personal issue that is absolutely not easy to handle. Also - Mr. Potter's face is widely known now. Fame is never easy to handle. And negative fame, as this ultimately is, committing one's "crimes" so to speak publicly, is even harder to handle. I am in awe at the courage this must have taken. Mr.Potter says on this interview "I have only been doing this for 18 months" - of course this is true, but also: Mr. Potter DID do this. He came forward, publicly, and spoke up. And that, in my opinion, deserves some real applause. Because it needs backbone and something we call "civil courage" here (I don't know if it's the same in English-speaking countries) and that is something that is extremely, extremely rare in all situations, in all people. So a very personal thing, that. And I can appreciate that. A whole lot. -Claudia