The Health Care Industry vs. Health Reform

Wendell PotterI'm the former insurance industry insider now speaking out about how big for-profit insurers have hijacked our health care system and turned it into a giant ATM for Wall Street investors, and how the industry is using its massive wealth and influence to determine what is (and is not) included in the health care reform legislation members of Congress are now writing.

Although by most measures I had a great career in the insurance industry (four years at Humana and nearly 15 at CIGNA), in recent years I had grown increasingly uncomfortable serving as one of the industry's top PR executives. In addition to my responsibilities at CIGNA, which included serving as the company's chief spokesman to the media on all corporate and financial matters, I also served on a lot of trade association committees and industry-financed coalitions, many of which were essentially front groups for insurers. So I was in a unique position to see not only how Wall Street analysts and investors influence decisions insurance company executives make but also how the industry has carried out behind-the-scenes PR and lobbying campaigns to kill or weaken any health care reform efforts that threatened insurers' profitability.

I also have seen how the industry's practices -- especially those of the for-profit insurers that are under constant pressure from Wall Street to meet their profit expectations -- have contributed to the tragedy of nearly 50 million people being uninsured as well as to the growing number of Americans who, because insurers now require them to pay thousands of dollars out of their own pockets before their coverage kicks in -- are underinsured. An estimated 25 million of us now fall into that category.

What I saw happening over the past few years was a steady movement away from the concept of insurance and toward "individual responsibility," a term used a lot by insurers and their ideological allies. This is playing out as a continuous shifting of the financial burden of health care costs away from insurers and employers and onto the backs of individuals. As a result, more and more sick people are not going to the doctor or picking up their prescriptions because of costs. If they are unfortunate enough to become seriously ill or injured, many people enrolled in these plans find themselves on the hook for such high medical bills that they are losing their homes to foreclosure or being forced into bankruptcy.

As an industry spokesman, I was expected to put a positive spin on this trend that the industry created and euphemistically refers to as "consumerism" and to promote so-called "consumer-driven" health plans. I ultimately reached the point of feeling like a huckster.

I thought I could live with being a well-paid huckster and hang in there a few more years until I could retire. I probably would have if I hadn't made a completely spur-of-the-moment decision a couple of years ago that changed the direction of my life. While visiting my folks in northeast Tennessee where I grew up, I read in the local paper about a health "expedition" being held that weekend a few miles up U.S. 23 in Wise, Va. Doctors, nurses and other medical professionals were volunteering their time to provide free medical care to people who lived in the area. What intrigued me most was that Remote Area Medical, a non-profit group whose original mission was to provide free care to people in remote villages in South America, was organizing the expedition. I decided to check it out.

That 50-mile stretch of U.S. 23, which twists through the mountains where thousands of men have made their living working in the coalmines, turned out to be my "road to Damascus."

Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw when I reached the Wise County Fairgrounds, where the expedition was being held. Hundreds of people had camped out all night in the parking lot to be assured of seeing a doctor or dentist when the gates opened. By the time I got there, long lines of people stretched from every animal stall and tent where the volunteers were treating patients.

That scene was so visually and emotionally stunning it was all I could do to hold back tears. How could it be that citizens of the richest nation in the world were being treated this way?

A couple of weeks later I was boarding a corporate jet to fly from Philadelphia to a meeting in Connecticut. When the flight attendant served my lunch on gold-rimmed china and gave me a gold-plated knife and fork to eat it with, I realized for the first time that someone's insurance premiums were paying for me to travel in such luxury. I also realized that one of the reasons those people in Wise County had to wait in long lines to be treated in animal stalls was because our Wall Street-driven health care system has created one of the most inequitable health care systems on the planet.

Although I quit my job last year, I did not make a final decision to speak out as a former insider until recently when it became clear to me that the insurance industry and its allies (often including drug and medical device makers, business groups and even the American Medical Association) were succeeding in shaping the current debate on health care reform. While the thought of speaking out had crossed my mind during the months leading up to the day I gave notice, I initially decided instead to hang out my shingle as a consultant to small businesses and nonprofit organizations.

I decided to take the shingle down, though, at least for a while, when I heard members of Congress reciting talking points like the ones I used to write to scare people away from real reform. I'll have more to say about that over the coming weeks and months, but, for now, remember this: whenever you hear a politician or pundit use the term "government-run health care" and warn that the creation of a public health insurance option that would compete with private insurers (or heaven forbid, a single-payer system like the one Canada has) will "lead us down the path to socialism," know that the original source of the sound bite most likely was some flack like I used to be.

Bottom line: I ultimately decided the stakes are too high for me to just sit on the sidelines and let the special interests win again. So I have joined forces with thousands of other Americans who are trying to persuade our lawmakers to listen to us for a change, not just to the insurance and drug company executives who are spending millions to shape reform to benefit them and the Wall Street hedge fund managers they are beholden to.

Take it from me, a former insider, who knows what really motivates those folks. You need to know where the hard-earned money you pay in health insurance premiums -- if you lucky enough to have coverage at all -- really goes.

I decided to speak out knowing that some people will not like what I have to say and will do all they can to discredit me. In anticipation of that, here are some facts:

  • I am not doing this because my former employer was pushing me out the door or because I had become a disgruntled employee. I had not been passed over for a promotion or anything like that. As I noted earlier, I had a financially rewarding career in the industry, and I'm very grateful for that. I had numerous promotions, raises, bonuses, stock options and stock grants over the years. When I left my last job, I was as close on the corporate ladder to the CEO as any PR person has ever climbed at the company. I reported to the general counsel, the company's top lawyer, whose boss is the chairman and CEO, a man I like and worked closely with over many years.
  • The decision to leave was entirely my own, and I left on good terms with everybody at the company. In fact, I agreed to postpone my last day at work by more than two months at the company's request. My coworkers gave me a terrific going-away party, and I received dozens of kind notes from people all across the country including friends at other companies and at America's Health Insurance Plans, the industry trade association.

I still consider all of them my friends. In fact, the thing I have missed most since I left is working as part of a team, even though I eventually came to the conclusion that I was playing for the wrong side. Being a consultant has its advantages, but I have missed the camaraderie. After a few months, I thought that maybe I should consider working for another company again. At one point, a former boss told me that another insurer had posted a PR job and encouraged me to contact a former CIGNA executive who worked there about it. Against my better judgment, I did, but I immediately decided not to pursue it. The last thing I wanted to do was to go from one big insurer to another one. What the hell was I thinking?

I'm writing this because, knowing how things work, I'm fully expecting insurers' PR firms to quietly feed friends of the industry (which include a roster of editorial writers and pundits, lawmakers and many others who fall under the broad category of "third-party advocates,") with anything they can think of to discredit me and what I say. This will go on behind the scenes because the insurers will want to preserve the image they are working so hard to cultivate -- as a group of kind and caring folks who think only of you and your health and are working hard as real partners to Congress and the White House to find "a uniquely American solution" to what ails our system.

I expect this because I have worked closely with the industry's PR firms over many years whenever the insurers were being threatened with bad publicity, litigation or legislation that might hinder profits.

One of the reasons I chose to become affiliated with the Center for Media and Democracy is because of the important work the organization does to expose often devious, dishonest and unethical PR practices that further the self interests of big corporations and special interest groups at the expense of the American people and the democratic principles this country was founded on.

After a long career in PR, I am looking forward to providing an insider's perspective as a senior fellow at CMD, and I am very grateful for the opportunity to speak out for the rights and dignity of ordinary people. The people of Wise County and every county deserve much better than to be left behind to suffer or die ahead of their time due to Wall Street's efforts to keep our government from ensuring that all Americans have real access to first-class health care.

Wendell Potter is the Senior Fellow on Health Care for the Center for Media and Democracy in Madison, Wisconsin.


Pat, We all view life based upon our individual experiences. You are obviously looking at things from the perspective of someone in the health care field who, I'm guessing, wasn't made chronically ill and disabled because the doctors you paid in full -- not only with insurance but also with your retirement savings -- couldn't decide who was responsible for diagnosing and treating the patient. Sometimes it's a bit harsh to judge someone before looking into their situation more. If you are interested, I have a blog that chronicles my many visits with doctors ( If you read my story beginning with #1 on, you'll see that I was very vocal about my dismay at positive test results being ignored and that I spent considerable time, money and effort to be my own educated advocate to no avail -- it only pissed off the doctors more. I agree wholeheartedly that doctors should be paid for helping people heal. But all I got was tests whose results I used to get my disability--my illness was that obvious. After not being able to work for five years, I ran out of money, so their actions caused me to lose my job, my health and all my savings and assets. My grievance is not mutually exclusive. I think doctors are unconsciously acting this way based upon how they are treated by the insurance companies, but this is misdirected anger. Why take out their frustrations on the patient, particularly one who was paying higher rates in cash at the time of service. No paperwork to file here. I paid because I wanted to get well and get back to work. Sometimes, it's not the patient's fault. Read my story and perhaps you'll gain some insight on a different perspective. As a patient, I ran into a lot of angry nurses, because I agree nurses are overworked, under appreciated and should be paid more, too. The medical mistakes that I endured are unfathomable.

To complain about a provider charging too much is to be naive about the entire broken system of health care in this country. Thank you for providing much-needed insight about how the insurance companies, drug companies, medical equipment companies, etc, etc, take up valuable time and re$ource$ in our health care delivery system, all of which is paid for by those who are fortunate to have insurance. Health care reform is long overdue and the scare tactics that are being employed are just that - scare tactics. They are not based in reality.

Thank you Wendell for standing up. I've been preaching single-payer system on my blog for quite some time. I'd race you for first place in line to sign up. My wife contracted ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome) following an "inadvertent cut" during routine surgery. Within 48 hours her lungs and kidneys stopped funcitoning and she was found lifeless in her hospital bed. The lack of oxygen caused an anoxic brain injury, but we were never told by hospital staff or attending doctors that had happened. Months of trying to find out why she was having debilitating migraines, problems thinking, memory problems and vision problems were fruitless until an opthalmalogist said she had 20/20 vision. Her question to him, "Then why can't I see?" He ordered an MRI that revealed the brain injury. A few more months of visiting a whole new team of specialists ensued that resulted in a recommendation that she be admitted to a neuro-medical facility. The insurance company refused to first. Brain injury is best treated within the first few crucial hours following the event. My wife was admitted for treatment 15 months after her event. And only then after her nation-wide corporation threatened to change insurance companies. Again, thank you.

I hope that this whistleblower recognizes that ERISA is a factor in the current success of insurance companys' thefts of legitimate benefits from legitimate claims by legitimate policyholders. People whose benefits are denied no longer have recourse to punitive damages or bad faith IF they get their policies through the workplace. They can ask for a hearing, but the result if successful will be the same or a very little more than the amount they were orginally entitled to. If people must hire a lawyer, the chance is that a settlement will be negotiated, and the lawyer will take a substantial part of the fraction of the claim that will finally be granted. The feds have stripped away the power of the states to regulate and ride herd on insurance companies and have turned the job of keeping them honest over to NOBODY. Unless one can afford to pay for one's own that case, the state agencies still have some jurisdiction. And....I can't stress this too the days of bad faith judgments, insurance companies could be severely punished for cheating policy holders. They were often made to pay a percentage of their profits to the victims. Now, there is no incentive for them to pay claims....whatever they can get away with cheating is theirs to keep. If people purchase their policies outside the workplace, the state insurance commissions still have regulatory and punative powers to keep the insurance companies honest (or, at least try to). Both Democrats and Republicans are responsible for misusing ERISA (which, afterall was supposedly designed to protect the pensions of workers) to use it instead to create a situations in which insurance companies have nothing to lose by withholding benefits. Again, our government, bought and paid for by big business, has turned over the keys to our wellbeing to the foxes in our henhouses.

before you say or write another bad word about the insurance companies in our country...why don't you do some research and find out which private sector (you know, the companies that you just said were so selfish and bad) insurance companies provide the health insurance for the obama family, senators and their families, congressmen and their families, supreme court judges and their families, MEMBERS OF ALL UNIONS AND THEIR FAMILIES? Let's discuss how terrible these companies are when union members, senators, congressmen, judges and obama get on national television and tear up their plans and embrace obama's duty to die plans? Then and only then will I listen to you!

to Mindy Rodriguez - Obama's duty-to-die plan???? Unfortunately I don't have to wonder where on earth you get your information from. It's never too late to educate yourself. :-)

As an industry insider myself, I can attest that what Mr Potter says is true. In my experience is as an underwriter for individual health policies, I decided whether the policy would be issued, and if so, how it would be issued. From the first week of my employment, I had conflicted feelings about what I was doing. How could I exclude coverage for asthma for a child? How could I decline people for individual policies based on pre-existing conditions? Where would they go for coverage? Either they had to have the resources to pay for a state-mandated plan which is very expensive, or they would go with no insurance. Remember America, not all of us are blessed to have group insurance through our employers !!!! There are many people who do not have this benefit and are forced to look for their own health insurance. These are the people that I saw through my work and I had to detach myself for years in my job by various rationalizations......I can't change the system.........I need a job with benefits......etc. I decided that I had sold my soul to the devil and had to get back to working in nonprofit health care which I had done for 25 years prior to the corporate insurance stint I had done. Mr Powell, do you have a job for me?

You have been blessed. Please keep writing. The world needs to hear you. As a physician, I have participated in local health fairs that offer free services. I am humbled by the patients who seek these services. The fraud perpetrated on the american tax paying public by health insurers who continue to be sued and continue to settle out of court for rico violations by state's attorney's general, the ama, and others needs to be exposed. I am staggered by the volume of misinformation perpetuated by the spokespeople of this industry. I am obviously also disgusted by the practices of this parasitic and useless industry that shamelessly steals working and retired people's lives with their greed. I can only hope that universal healthcare snuffs out the pathetic industry that so heartlessly steals from the most vulnerable segments of our society.

My hat is off to Wendall Potter. Potter places the responsibility for our nation's healthcare woes where it clearly belongs: the healthcare insurance monopolies. Congress, and the White House refuse to acknowledge what most of us already know: the gross injustices in our healthcare is due to corporate greed! 18,000-22,000 Americans die annually because the HMOs reject needed treatment or because the victims cannot pay for needed services! Given these facts one can only wonder why our president and Congress cannot bring themselves up to calling a spade a spade? Given these facts why are they allowing the HMOs and other corporate interests continued control or even participation in our healthcare?? The fact is our elected officials are as useless and untrustworthy as any enemy real or imagined. They respond only to huge campaign contributions and our needs are quickly ignored! The rest of the world should bring our government up on mass violation of human rights before the United Nations! The fact that our elected officials can be so easily bought off should be a known fact to the rest of the world! HEALTHCARE IS A BASIC HUMAN RIGHT, NOT A PRIVILEGE OR COMMODITY!

A simple, 2-sentence health care reform bill: require all insurance providers to acquire Non-Profit status. Enforce all normal non-profit laws, and make no other changes to the structure or function of the industry. Obama: any reform which does not HALVE the national health care bill within 10 years, is the wrong reform.