Wendell Potter's CNN Editorial: How Insurance Firms Drive the Debate

NOTE: Wendell Potter, the former health insurance PR executive who is now Senior Fellow on Health Care with the Center for Media and Democracy, provided CNN with the follow editorial posted on their website.

(CNN) -- Having grown up in one of the most conservative and Republican places in the country -- East Tennessee -- I understand why many of the people who are showing up at town hall meetings this month are reacting, sometimes violently, when members of Congress try to explain the need for an expanded government role in our health care system.

I also have a lot of conservative friends, including one former co-worker who was laid off by CIGNA several years ago but who nonetheless worries about a "government takeover" of health care.

The most vocal folks at the town hall meetings seem to share the same ideology as my kinfolks in East Tennessee and my former CIGNA buddy: the less government involvement in our lives, the better.

That point couldn't have been made clearer than by the man standing in line to get free care at Remote Area Medical's recent health care "expedition" at the Wise County, Virginia, fairgrounds, who told a reporter he was dead set against President Obama's reform proposal.

Even though he didn't have health insurance, and could see the desperation in the faces of thousands of others all around him who were in similar straits, he was more worried about the possibility of having to pay more taxes than he was eager to make sure he and his neighbors wouldn't have to wait in line to get care provided by volunteer doctors in animal stalls.

Friday morning my former CIGNA buddy sent me an e-mail challenging something he said his wife heard me say in a radio report about my press conference in the Capitol on Wednesday with Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-New York, chairwoman of the House Rules Committee.

"She heard you say that these protestors are funded by the insurance companies. Frankly, nothing would surprise me, but certainly not each and every person," he wrote. "If there was a meeting near me, I certainly would tell my local representative how I feel about this entire subject (and it wouldn't be pretty), and I certainly am not funded by anyone. So I am ultimately wondering what proof there is that seemingly ordinary Americans are finally protesting what is going in Washington and there are all of these suggestions of a greater conspiracy."

If the radio report had carried more of my remarks, he might have a better understanding of how the health insurance and its army of PR people are influencing his opinions and actions without his even knowing it.

Until I quit my job last year, I was one of the leaders of that army. I had a very successful career and was my company's voice to the media and the public for several years.

It was my job to "promote and defend" the company's reputation and to try to persuade reporters to write positive stories about the industry's ideas on reform. During the last couple of years of my career, however, I became increasingly worried that the high-deductible plans insurers were beginning to push Americans into would force more and more of us into bankruptcy.

The higher I rose in the company, the more I learned about the tactics insurers use to dump policyholders when they get sick, in order to increase profits and to reward their Wall Street investors. I could not in good conscience continue serving as an industry mouthpiece. And I did not want to be part of yet another industry effort to kill meaningful reform.

I explained during the press conference with Rep. Slaughter how the industry funnels millions of its policyholders' premiums to big public relations firms that provide talking points to conservative talk show hosts, business groups and politicians. I also described how the PR firms set up front groups, again using your premium dollars and mine, to scare people away from reform.

What I'm trying to do as I write and speak out against the insurance industry I was a part of for nearly two decades is to inform Americans that when they hear isolated stories of long waiting times to see doctors in Canada and allegations that care in other systems is rationed by "government bureaucrats," someone associated with the insurance industry wrote the original script.

The industry has been engaging in these kinds of tactics for many years, going back to its successful behind-the-scenes campaign to kill the Clinton reform plan.

A story in Friday's New York Times about the origin of the absurdly false rumor that President Obama's health care proposal would create government-sponsored "death panels" bears out what I have been saying.

The story notes that the rumor emanated "from many of the same pundits and conservative media outlets that were central in defeating Bill Clinton's health care proposal 16 years ago, including the editorial board of The Washington Times, the American Spectator magazine and Betsy McCaughey, whose 1994 health care critique made her a star of the conservative movement (and ultimately, the lieutenant governor of New York)."

The big PR firms that work for the industry have close connections with those media outlets and stars in the conservative movement. One of their PR firms, which created and staffed a front group in the late '90s to kill the proposed "Patients' Bill of Rights," launched a PR and advertising campaign in conservative media outlets to drum up opposition to the bill.

The message: President Clinton "owed a debt to the liberal base of the Democrat Party and would try to pay back that debt by advancing the type of big government agenda on health care that he failed to get in 1994."

The industry goes to great lengths to keep its involvement in these campaigns hidden from public view. I know from having served on numerous trade group committees and industry-funded front groups, however, that industry leaders are always full partners in developing strategies to derail any reform that might interfere with insurers' ability to increase profits.

So the next time you hear someone warning against a "government takeover" of our health care system, or that the creation of a public health insurance option would send us down the "slippery slope toward socialism," know that someone like I used to be wrote those terms, knowing it might turn many of the very people who would benefit most from meaningful reform into unwitting spokespeople for the industry.



After a weekend of news suggesting the administration will back off the requirement of a public option, Aetna, Cigna, Wellpoint and United Healthcare are all up between 3.5% and 5.5%. Seems that driving the debate also drives the market.

I found your article very pro Obama plan rather than anti-insurance. As a plaintiff personal injury paralegal, I am well aware of most of the tactics used by all insurance companies. However, Obama can't fix that. Our congress people can but have chosen to do NOTHING. Barbara Boxer was on NPR last week complaining about how bad the ins. co.s are and yada yada but not one word on why no new legislation has been proposed. California limited health care ins. premiums and kept good care by smart legislation. Is Obama or any congress person proposing any such thing? If so, where's the bill??? So, you can see why we are leary of any government plan when they can't even regulate what already exists.....

Well said Nancy. I agree with you to certain extent, especially realizing your background as a personal injury paralegal. It's always harder to fix what already exist like everything in this life. Let's see if the gov has what it takes to regulate the insurance industry better.

As an economist who has never read any of the insurance company spin, most, if not all the points made by "conservative talk" etc are quite intuitive to me, and I do not need a corporate PR wonk to point them out. Really, it is that intuitive. I seriously doubt your image of Big Insurance controlling the message of conservative talk radio, etc. Read what economists are writing about this, and you will read about concepts like rationing, shortages, price controls. Furthermore, the fact that Big Insurance may be spreading this message does not in any way make the message untrue. Finally, the myths of BIG Insurance dropping sick policy holders is patently false, because an insurance contract is a binding contract, and the firm would be sued for breach of contract. There are plenty of lawyers looking for that kind of case. It makes for a good movie (the Rainmaker), but that is the exception, not the MO.

<blockquote>"As an economist who has never read any of the insurance company spin, most, if not all the points made by "conservative talk" etc are quite intuitive to me, and I do not need a corporate PR wonk to point them out. Really, it is that intuitive. I seriously doubt your image of Big Insurance controlling the message of conservative talk radio, etc."</blockquote> I'm reminded of the film, 'The Shawshank Redemption', where Tim Robbins' character sits down with the Warden after explaining the story told to him that could free him from prison. To that I borrow the question - how can you be so obtuse? Is it deliberate? Also, economists are not experts on every issue, health care included, but I would advise anyone to please read what economists have to say, as they all do not share the kind of sentiments this person would have you believe.

...you apparently know nothing about how insurance companies operate. That, or you don't read the news. The only thing binding about an insurance contract is the amount of money the policyholder is required to pay into it. Nearly any claim can be denied or made negotiable, or the person who wrote the policy wouldn't have a job. Seriously, you have no idea how the real world works, do you?

dude, was the point of your comment to let people know you're an economist? not impressive. how many economists do you think are on the insurance industry payroll? most economists that we read are just guns for hire and the various conservative movements out there are the ones hiring. its nonsense to assert that mr. potter's point about insured people being dropped for being sick is false. being an economist has made you privvy to the same things mr. potter became privvy to after 20 years in the insurance industry? doubtful. i am being screwed by my insurance company. my dr. wants me to get a ct scan for a surgery i had 30 years ago and my insurance company said they wont pay because its a preexisting condition. keep doing your part to jam up the reform we need. its working. the brainwashed are winning, so far.

would say, an 'economist' has no intrisic qualification making them of measureable quality. 'As an economist' could tell you to buy Bear Stearns stock until it no longer exists. Your comment is beyond pretentious.

I used to be one of those insurance company employees who reviewed groups who had high claims. We would review the claims data to help predict future claims and make recommendations for renewal or not. I also reviewed claims on individuals to see if claims could be denied due to preexisting conditions. It happens.

Thank you Wendell Potter for speaking out. My gratitude overfloweth. I think of my Irish-American friend whose sister is still in Ireland. The poor sister has everything wrong with her known to man and is completely taken care of and has a variety of caring nurses check up on her at home. Her society *takes care of her* -- because she's human and hurt. Because it's the bloody right thing to do. Because it would never occur to them to do otherwise. They see us as bizarre & barbaric. As a Canadian full-fledged entrepreneur friend said to me when he showed me his Canada health card and said, "I can go anywhere in Canada and get anything fixed." He looked me in the eyes and said, "What the Hell is the matter with you people?" I didn't and don't have an answer. For all the wonderful strengths of our dear country, our health care is brutal and botched. (Self-employed, I haven't had health coverage since 1979.) I think of my dearest friend whose hands turn blue, the fear in her dear face. And we worry about the well-being of health corporations giants? It's monstrous and it sickens me. Profit is great for washing machines and ipods. It has zero place in health care, which should be part of our commonwealth, like fire departments and police.