"How Everybody Exists" Doesn’t Have To Be

democracy soldIf you want to know how things really get done in Washington -- or don't get done, depending on the desires of America's corporate executives -- all you have to do is read a couple of paragraphs in a January 23 story in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Reporter Joe DiStefano quotes a vice president at APCO Worldwide -- one of DC's most powerful and influential PR firms -- in response to questions about my book, Deadly Spin. Throughout the book, I disclose the previously secretive work APCO did for the health insurance industry to manipulate public opinion on health care reform, in part by trying to scare people away from a movie, Michael Moore's 2007 documentary "Sicko".

The surprising gem in the Inquirer piece was that APCO VP Bill Pierce essentially agreed with me. He acknowledged that interest-funded pressure groups "are all over the place" in Washington. "That's how everybody exists here," Pierce said.

He's right. That is indeed how the influence peddlers and spinmeisters exist (although a much more accurate word is thrive) in Washington.

Credit Where Credit is Due

Here's the context. Pierce -- an old (and probably now former) friend from my nearly two decades inside the insurance industry -- was quoted by DiStefano as saying that I erred when I wrote that APCO set up and operated a fake grassroots front group, Health Care America, to discredit Moore and his movie because insurance company executives were terrified that Sicko would convince even more Americans that the government should play a much greater role in the U.S. health care system.

The trend was already going against the industry: In the spring of 2007, a few weeks before Sicko's U.S. premier, the insurance industry's pollsters told the executives that for the first time ever, more than half of all Americans were so disillusioned with the way private insurers controlled the health care system that they wanted more government involvement.

My error, according to Pierce, is not in pointing out that APCO was doing the dirty work of the industry through its phony front group -- but that I failed to acknowledge the role that other big special interests played in funding Health Care America, as well. (Pierce was listed on the now-defunct group's press releases as Health Care America's media contact. If you called the number on the press release for Pierce, you would have reached him at his desk at APCO.)

DiStefano is at least the second reporter to hear Pierce complain that I did the public a disservice by not giving sufficient credit to other big special interests who paid APCO to create and run Health Care America. In November of last year he told PR industry watchdog Jack O'Dwyer the same thing.

In response, I wrote a story on Nov. 22 detailing the history and work of the front group. Here's an excerpt:

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.

Textbook Playbook

Had Pierce been more forthcoming, he might have shared with DiStefano the PR plan APCO prepared for America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), the insurance industry's big lobbying group, to discredit Sicko and set the stage for the industry's campaign to shape health care reform legislation.

Since he didn't, I will.

Here it is, courtesy of Bill Moyers, who disclosed portions of the APCO/AHIP plan on the July 10, 2009, edition of Bill Moyers Journal, and posted it on his website. As you can see, the plan shows how APCO planned to use Health Care America and other organizations that APCO could press into service in the industry's campaign against Sicko. If you've ever wanted to know how to create a PR plan to discredit an enemy and manipulate public opinion, you should take a look at this one. It's a classic.

Back to Pierce's comments to DiStefano. Here's the full quote:

'Pharma, hospitals, doctors backed Health Care America, not insurers,' Pierce said. He doesn't see why Potter thinks such groups are a threat to democracy: In Washington, interest-funded pressure groups 'are all over the place,' and many are backed by liberals. 'That's how everybody exists here.'

Pierce and I agree on this last point. Pierce admitted in a few words that one of the core truths of my book are indeed true: the near-total control exerted by corporate special interests over the democratic process in America is simply, and in the most literal way possible, business as usual.

The irony seems to be lost on Pierce, however. What's the big deal, he asks?

Endangered Democracy

The big deal is that this dynamic threatens the very foundations of our democracy. It puts the interests of corporations, and the institutional shareholders that own them, above the interests of individual citizens -- you and me. It concentrates power in the hands of a few "business leaders," rather than in the people who vote and the people voters elect to represent them. It gives the loudest voice not to those with the best ideas, but to those who can afford the most expensive lobbyists.

In the end, the true will of the people -- such as the widely popular but still elusive policy of providing universal access to affordable, quality health care, as do the countries featured in Sicko — will continue to be thwarted until this is no longer "how everybody exists" in Washington.


One of the most liberating experiences in life is to make the commitment to simply respond to conscience. People who try it, even for a week, are literally amazed at the release and how much time and energy they discover has been spent justifying actions contrary to conscience.
--Stephen Covey


i wanted to say i really respect what you have done but i have two questions that were never addressed Why doesn't anyone ever report on the five largest health insurers, or holding companies (A holding company is organized specifically to hold the stock of other companies and ordinarily owns such a dominant interest in the other company or companies that it can dictate policy) that control them, and the association called Blue Cross Blue Shield. Blue Cross Blue Shield is an association that rents or sells its name to other insurance companies. The five largest insurers are Aetna, Well Point, CIGNA, United Health Care, and Humana. These companies control health insurance in our country through their subsidiaries. One example; Well Point, our nation’s largest health insurer who owns Anthem Health Care, also owns another corporation called Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, which is in fourteen different areas or more, as well as they also own Unicare Health. These companies all sell the same or similar products, with four boards of directors, four sets of administrators, four sets of actuaries, four sets of attorneys, and even more. One group for each company. They also have four sets of claims departments, four separate sets of stock holders, etc.... all needing to meet the expectations of the parent company (Well Point) as well as Wall Street and their stockholders. Don’t they only need one set not four different ones? Let’s stop multiplying the effects of multiple administration costs. Let’s bring healthcare cost down. Let’s stop pseudo-monopolies. For an example; why aren’t the companies owned by Well Point all called Well Point? Let's stop them, the insurance companies, from competing against themselves. Some even own the doctors as well as the medical facility you have to go to. Where is the incentive to lower costs? Make them compete for our business. There are 255 million customers, that should be a huge quantity dollar discount for the American public with fair competition and the free market. Insurance companies now charge us more (in premiums) and give us less (cutting benefits). Doctors have complained for years about all the additional paperwork and the high cost of malpractice insurance. In other words, they want Tort Reform to limit our ability for compensation, wrongs, and harm done by the medical profession. (Tort is a system for compensating wrongs and harm done by one party to another's person, property or other protected interests (e.g. reputation, under libel and slander laws). This is all caused and set by the insurance industry. They spread the expense of a few "bad" doctors over the entire medical field instead of making the "bad" doctors be held accountable for his or her own actions. Did you know insurance companies protect these "bad" doctors, hospitals, nursing homes, and so on, by keeping attorneys on retainers just to protect them so that they don't have to pay claims (isn't their job to pay our, the American people's, claims)? Insurance companies have caused the problem with doctors, their paperwork and patient denials. Again, insurance companies now charge us more (in premiums) and give us less (cutting benefits). Remember when businesses said they could not afford health insurance for their employees? They had to lay people off and send jobs elsewhere. Remember, insurance companies now charge us more (in premiums) and give us less (cutting benefits). Patients have been blamed for being sick (it’s our fault for being sick. Insurance companies must have forgotten that we pay our premiums for them to pay our claims. That is their job). The insurance companies used to say "GOD forbid you got sick but thank GOD you have health insurance". Nowadays it's more like "GOD forbid you get sick now you can’t afford health insurance". Look at their own greed! Who is more important to the insurance companies their stock holders or their customers? Without their customers they would have no money to pay their stockholders or business! Also, would someone please explain why no one seems to know that Medicare Advantage is not Medicare. It is an insurance plan sold by the for-profit insurance companies that takes money from the non-profit government Medicare Trust (that we have paid into) just to give to the for-profit insurance companies which is called Medicare Advantage. Then they (the for-profit insurance companies) charge you higher monthly premiums than non-profit government Medicare, deductibles, and co pays. MEDICARE ADVANTAGE IS NOT MEDICARE. Medicare is a non-profit. Let’s stop funding the for-profit Medicare Advantage from the non-profit government Medicare Trust. Money was given to the for-profit insurance companies out of the Medicare Trust for Medicare Advantage just to increase their bottom lines. Let's use the funds from Medicare Trust to improve Medicare not fund Medicare Advantage. Don’t forget, insurance companies still offer Medicare supplements to cover what Medicare does not at a fraction of the cost. Using the five major health insurers and not allowing them to own other insurance companies (which has allowed them to compete against themselves instead of competing against each other) would greatly improve our cost control and gain better quality care. Finally, maybe we would have value for our dollar instead of our dollar for their value. With 255 million potential customers we should have better quality and better pricing. Don't you think? DON’T LET THE WOLVES IN SHEEPS CLOTHING PULL THE WOOL OVER OUR EYES!!!!!! Michael G. Copeland