Wendell Potter: Rally Against Wall Street's Health Care Takeover

Saturday, August 29 I had the good fortune to speak at a community rally for health care reform in a city park in downtown Portland, Oregon. It was a broad-based and diverse group with many signs and placards supporting the 'public option' being debated by Congress, and others calling for 'single payer' reform like that working effectively in other countries such as Canada. Here is what I said:

I would like to begin by apologizing to all of you for the role I played 15 years ago in cheating you out of a reformed health care system. Had it not been for greedy insurance companies and other special interests, and their army of lobbyists and spin-doctors like I used to be, we wouldn't be here today.

I'm ashamed that I let myself get caught up in deceitful and dishonest PR campaigns that worked so well, hundreds of thousands of our citizens have died, and millions of others have lost their homes and been forced into bankruptcy, so that a very few corporate executives and their Wall Street masters could become obscenely rich.

But it was only during the last few years of my career that I came to realize the full scope of the harm my colleagues and I had caused, and the lengths that insurance companies will go to increase their profits at the expense of working families.

As I told the Senate Commerce Committee two months ago, the higher up the corporate ladder I climbed, the more I could see how insurance companies confuse their customers and dump the sick – all so they can satisfy those Wall Street masters.

I described for the senators how insurers make promises they have no intention of keeping, how they flout regulations designed to protect consumers, and how they make it nearly impossible to understand -- or even to obtain -- information consumers need.

I also told the Committee how the industry has conducted duplicitous and well-financed PR and lobbying campaigns every time Congress has tried to reform our health care system -- and how its current behind-scenes-efforts may well shape reform in a way that benefits Wall Street far more than average Americans.

I noted that, just as the industry did 15 years ago when it led the effort to kill the Clinton reform plan, it is using shills and front groups to spread lies and disinformation to scare Americans away from the very reform that would benefit them most.

Make no mistake, the industry, despite its public assurances to be good-faith partners with the President and Congress, has been at work for years laying the groundwork for devious and often sinister campaigns to manipulate public opinion.

The industry goes to great lengths to keep its involvement in these campaigns hidden from public view. But I know from having served on many trade group committees that industry leaders are always full partners in developing strategies to derail any reform that might interfere with their ability to increase their companies' profits.

My involvement in those activities goes back to the early '90s when insurers joined with other special interests to finance the activities of an organization called the Healthcare Leadership Council, which led a coordinated effort to scare Americans and members of Congress away from the Clinton plan.

A few years after that victory, the insurers formed a front group called the Health Benefits Coalition to kill efforts to pass a Patients Bill of Rights. While it was touted as a broad-based business group, the Health Benefits Coalition in reality got the lion's share of its funding from Big Insurance.

Like most front groups, the Health Benefits Coalition was set up and run out of a big and well-connected PR firm. One of the key strategies developed by the PR firm as the coalition was gearing up for battle in late 1998 was to stir up support among conservative talk radio hosts and other media.

The PR firm formed alliances with groups like the Christian Coalition and the Family Research Council and persuaded them to send letters to Congress and to appear at press conferences. The firm also launched an advertising campaign in conservative media outlets. The message was that President Clinton owed a debt to the liberal base of the Democratic 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 1993. Those tactics worked. Industry allies in Congress made sure the Patients' Bill of Rights would not become law.

The insurance industry has funded several other front groups since then whenever the industry has been under attack. It formed the Coalition for Affordable Quality Healthcare to try to improve the image of managed care in response to a constant stream of negative stories that appeared in the media in the late '90s and the first years of this decade.

It funded another front group when lawyers began filing class action lawsuits on behalf of doctors and patients.

The PR firm the industry hired to create that front group, by the way, had planned and conducted a similar campaign for the tobacco industry a few years earlier.

The insurance industry hired that same PR firm again in 2007 to help blunt the impact of Michael Moore's movie, "Sicko." It created and staffed a front group called "Health Care America" specifically to discredit Moore and to demonize the health care systems featured in the movie.

Among the tactics the PR firm used once again was to enlist the support of conservative talk show hosts, writers and editorial page editors to warn against a "government-takeover" of the U.S. health care system. The term "government-takeover" is one the industry has used many times over the years to scare people away from reform.

Health Care America also placed ads in newspapers. One of those ads carried this message, "In America, you wait in line to see a movie. In government-run health care systems, you wait to see a doctor."

With this history, you can rest assured that the insurance industry is up to the same dirty tricks, using the same devious PR practices it has used for many years, to kill reform this year, or even better, to shape reform so that it benefits insurance companies and their Wall Street investors far more than average Americans.

Americans need to be alert to how the industry and its allies are working to influence their opinions and lawmakers' votes. I know from years as an industry PR executive how effective insurers have been in using scare tactics to turn public opinion against any reform efforts that would threaten their profitability.

I warned earlier this year that Americans and the media should pay close attention to the efforts insurers and their ideological buddies would undertake to demonize health care systems around the world that don't allow for-profit insurance companies to have the free reign they have here.

Americans must realize that the 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, the insurance industry has written the script.

And Americans must realize that every time they hear we will be heading down the "slippery slope toward socialism" if Congress creates a public insurance option to compete with private insurers, some insurance flack like I used to be wrote that, too.

Every time you hear about the shortcomings of what they call "government-run" health care, remember this: what we have now in this country, and what the insurers are determined to keep in place, is Wall Street-run health care.

And know that we already have one of the most insidious means of rationing care in the world -- not by people we can hold accountable on election day but by insurance company executives who answer only to a few wealthy investors and hedge fund managers who care far more about earnings per share than your health and well-being.

If Congress goes along with the "solutions" the insurance industry says it is bringing to the table and fails to create a public insurance option to compete with private insurers, the bill it sends to President Obama might as well be called the Insurance Industry Profit Protection and Enhancement Act.

Some in the media believe the health insurers have already won. That's not only because the debate over reform seems to have been hijacked recently by insurance company shills and people who believe the lies they have been spewing, but because of the billions of dollars the insurers have been spending to influence votes on Capitol Hill.

Folks, it is not too late to keep the insurers from winning, but time is running short. We need to think of the coming weeks as some of the most important weeks in the history of this country. We need to think that way because they will be, and we must redouble our efforts to make sure members of Congress put our interests above those of private health insurers and others who view reform as a way to make more money.

If we want to take back control or our health care system from the big for-profit companies that have wrecked it, we must take back control of this debate. We must begin to talk in ways that reach our friends and neighbors who have been influenced by the lies.

We need to tell them that we can continue to have a system that allows 20,000 Americans to die every year because they don't have insurance, or we can have a system that will make sure their sons and daughters are not one of them.

We should ask the skeptics of a public option, who are afraid that giving people a choice of a government-run plan will lead to socialism, if they would want to go back to the day when Americans had to buy private fire insurance.

Tell them if they lived in Ben Franklin's day and they didn't have a shield on the outside of their house indicating they were insured, their town's private fire insurance companies would let their house burn down. The private insurance companies would keep your fire from spreading to your insured next-door neighbor's house, but your house would soon be nothing more than a pile of ashes.

We must remind our family members and our friends and neighbors why we are having this debate in the first place. If they tell you they don't think their tax dollars should be used to pay for someone else's coverage, point out to them that they already are paying for the care uninsured people receive when they go to the emergency room and can't afford to pay the exorbitant bills they get from the hospital. Those of us who are insured pay an extra thousand dollars in premiums every year just to cover that uncompensated care.

If they say they don't want to saddle their children and grandchildren with additional taxes, ask them if they have thought what might happen to their children and grandchildren if they found themselves among the millions of people without health insurance or, maybe more likely, among the underinsured.

Ask them how they would feel if their daughter came down with breast cancer soon after she and your son-in-law moved into their dream house and just as your grandchildren were beginning to think about college.

Ask them how they would feel if their daughter and son-in-law learned that the insurance they thought would be there when they needed it required them to pay so much out of their own pockets that they couldn't afford to pay for their daughter's cancer treatments and also make the house payments.

Ask them how they would feel if their children and grandchildren were forced out of their dream home and into bankruptcy, and ask them how they would feel if their grandchildren had to give up their dreams of going to college.

Ask them how they would feel if their granddaughter fell into the wrong crowd and died of a drug overdose just as her high school friends were graduating from the college she herself had once dreamed of graduating from. Ask them how they would feel when they found out that this all happened because their daughter's private insurance company forced her to pay more for her care than her family could afford just so it could continue to pay its CEO $30 million a year and meet Wall Street's profit expectations.

Folks, I believe we Americans by and large are a compassionate people. Yes, we believe in individual responsibility, but we also believe in the Golden Rule.

I don't know a single American -- or at least I hope I don't -- who would knowingly wish the future I just described on anyone's family. But the sad reality is that many of the people who have become unwitting spokespeople for the insurance industry -- the people who are objecting to a public insurance option because they have bought into the lies the insurance industry's shills are telling them -- will ensure that that horrific future is a reality for millions of Americans, including their loved ones, if the insurance industry wins this debate again.

So over the coming weeks, we must tell our conservative friends who are worried needlessly about a government-takeover of our health care system that what we all should really be concerned about is the Wall-Street takeover that has occurred while we were not paying attention.

It is that takeover that has led to more and more working Americans being forced into the ranks of the uninsured. It is that takeover that has forced millions more of us into the ranks of the underinsured because insurers are making us pay thousands of dollars out of our own pockets before they'll pay a dime.

It is that takeover that has forced many of our neighbors out of their homes and into bankruptcy. And it is that takeover that is causing more and more small businesses to stop offering coverage to their employees because of the exorbitant premiums that greedy, Wall-Street-driven insurers are charging them.

I want to close by thanking you for being here today and for the hard work you've already been doing to try to persuade members of Congress to do the right thing. But as I pointed out earlier, the coming weeks will be some of the most important weeks of our lives.

Let's pledge to each other that we will work even harder to ensure that America joins the rest of the developed world in making sure that ALL of its citizens -- our brothers and sisters, our sons and our daughters, our neighbors and our co-workers -- have good coverage we can all have the peace of mind knowing will be there when and if we need it. Thank you.

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


I was a constituent at Con. Jim Moran's recent Health care reform town hall in Reston, VA last Tuesday. Along with the elderly and infirmed, I sadly witnessed too many mental patients who must not be covered by our health care system. Many of these were hollering inappropriate things like "baby killer" at Gov. Howard Dean when he was trying to speak and were promptly escorted out by the Fairfax County Police. I'm convinced that if we took better care of these mentally challenged patients, then we wouldn't have so many distractions and disruptions when our democracy is in action. These mental patients are the dupes the insurance lobby needs to take advantage of in order to give voice to their misinformation.

Sorry, but this is preaching to the choir, and not a way to take back control of the debate. Everybody I know already knows who's behind the anti-reform backlash, though maybe not Wendell Potter's command of the facts. The people who don't recognize the role of Big Insurance are the same people who voted for Sarah Palin in the last election. Here in California, I don't know any teabaggers, and if I did, I doubt that I could persuade them with healthcare "sob stories", or even reasoned arguments backed by facts. Sorry, "Obama wants to kill your Momma" always wins in a shouting match. Right now I'm discouraged, and I'm thinking the only thing I can do is write and fax my congressmen, but they are already on my side.

Mr. Potter thank you for coming out and making us aware of the childish shenanigans that go on at the executive corporate level. I also worked at a major insurance company as a recruiter and from day one I felt an evil presence throughout this company that I could never put my finger on. Now I know for sure that these forked tongued mostly white males played these games for years with not only their own employees but they let innocent people die for no reason at all. To be honest it never surprised me and I'm glad that I am out of corporate america.

Mr. Potter: I came upon your writings when searching something on a collegue, when I came upon your McCarthy-like implication of Mr. Pete Petersen's NY Times editorial reply. I decided to read up on 'your angle" , read your Senate testimony, and found your blog. While you have the power of the pen, or the mouse, at your disposal, you are using it in a way not representing the best intentions of the foundation of your organization and employer. Lets start with this article. First you overstate your role and your knowledge, then you demonize and villanize your past ways in evangelic method, and you close with an all knowing accusation that those opposed to your viewpoint are liars. You did the same thing in your Senate Testimony associating Aetna's loss of 8mm policies and the circumstances where a carrier may rescind. It made for a good story, but that's all it was, and it belonged in the fiction area. Where appropriate I will be glad to elaborate much further, even though it's your job to be balanced, I thought. You open this post with the editorial that your group you spoke to was "broad-based" with those supporting the public option and others a single payer system. That's balanced? That's balanced only in a world where an impartial jury comes in with half ready to hang em, and the other half ready to shoot em. It's not news that industries hire PR firms and lobbyists to advocate their best interests. You should expect it. It's part of a democracy. You claim that you didn't "intentionally" lie. I guess that means that your lies are unintentional. What's not part of a democracy is your 1930's Eastern European style of attack like you did on Mr. Petersen. You accused PriceWaterhouse of creating a fraudulent document outlining what insurance companies pay out because a private entity ordered the study. You eliminated the Congressional Budget Office 2008 study on the admin cost of public healthcare with vague rationalizations, completely unsourced. You used those two dismissals to assail an independent and sourced, opinion. A JOURNALIST would not do that. You show your continued "for hire" propoganda by claiming that those opposing the Public option are ONLY THOSE WHO " have bought into the lies the insurance industry’s shills are telling them and as a result we advocate daughters and granddaughters to fall into the wrong crowd and die of a drug overdose. I respect most of those who want a public option or single payer system. Health insurance is very confusing, even to the informed. It's unreasonably expensive to both employers and individuals. It's a burden of paperwork to physicians. It';s a financial burden to providers as well since the government plans, especially the States underpay the cost, and don't pay providers for as long as a year. I understand the frustration and applaud the push to change. You sir are a propoganda minister who;s on a soap box against the industry that you don't like anymore.Your articles are based on the theory that "someone else should pay for it' and "it's someone elses fault". YOUR example of a girl who, fell into the wrong crowd, did drugs, overdosed and died, is the fault of an insurance company, is so beyond reponsable journalism that I don't think there is a word for it. A slick talker like you probably has one. I am 100% against the Public option, if Medicare Reimbursement rates are mandated. WIthout them, the plan cant compete. Explain that!.

Got it. Thumbs down on the article. Just wanted to point out that Mr Gurda, as per his website that is linked in the aritcle, is President of "Castle Group Health Inc", described as "a leading health insurance agency, in Northbrook, Il". If you accuse people of being biased and slanted, please be explicit about your obvious slant. Something like, "although I'm president of a health insurance company, I don't think your portrayal of insurance companies is fair...". Saying that, of course, takes the wind out of your sails a bit, but whatever. Also, it would be great if everybody could stop trying to draw parallels between known hated figures and the people they don't agree with ("McCarthy-like", "eastern European", whatever that's supposed to mean. Anything related to Hitler, etc). The constant spin is nauseating. Just stop. Say who you are, and what you mean, with specifics. Hyperbolic talk is obstructive, unless, of course, your goal is to prevent real change and regulation, which, from a purely financial perspective, would be yours. Conflict of interest is often assumed to be a conscious process, where you know you should do X, but you do Y because you have a conflict. Sometimes its what I call "confusion" of interest, to distinguish between the two. Where you honestly think you can keep the moral and ethical issues intact, even though your economic issues are at odds with them. The brain tends to slant its view towards your own benefit, but not really in a conscious way. If you honestly believe in your post, I would humbly suggest you might have a slight "confusion" of interest, considering what you do for a living, and take that into account when throwing around terms such as "McCarthy-like".

To all: I absolutely should have been more clear about who I am. I had a couple of drafts of my reply and should have been more explicit. In that I listed my homepage, my full name, and my blog www.bloghealthinsurance.com in the site, I hope that you will give me some benefit of the doubt on the lack of clear disclosure. I also stated that Mr. Petersen was a colleague. I do want to correct that I am an insurance agent. Not president of an insurance company. Insurance companies would love to do away with us if they could. Most big insurers do compete against us selling the product without a broker, so I do want that clarification noted. Mr. Petersen is an independent representative, general agent, and would fall under the same category. Additionally, never do I claim that the new plans would exclude representatives explaining the products to people. Medicare Supplements , CHIP plans and Medicare Advantage plans, also have agents, like myself. So now that this is out on the table, lets identify what I specifically called out and I look forward to your take. 1) Did Mr Potter accuse Mr. Petersen of being a shill? 2) Is having a crowd of single payer fans AND Public option fans a broad based and diverse crowd? 3) In his Senate Testimony Mr. Potter said that carriers "look carefully to see if a sick policyholder ommitted a minor illness ...and then use that as justification to cancel the policy". That is an outright lie. 4) He also said "they dump small businesses whose ...claims exceed what was expected... then hike the next year premium so high that the employer has to cut benefits". Also 100% false. Each state, limits what a carrier can do in any given year. In most states it takes more than 5 years of high claims to move a small group (under 50 lives) from a preferred rate tier to a high risk rate tier. 5) Did he claim that PriceWaterhouse delivered a "for the audience" report? Although the December 2008 CBO report actually showed that insurers paid out more than PriceWaterhouse showed. 5) Did he or did he not imply that the theorectical girl who died of a drug overdose was because of insurance? Come on ... 6) Did he say that anyone against the public option would " ensure that horrific future is a reality for millions of Americans, including their loved ones". The tone of the article was not advocating a position. He only focused on unsubstantiated accusation and discrediting of anyone against the plan. It was the social equivalent of Pro-Lifer's marching with placards of dead fetuses. From a crackpot is one thing, from a Journalist, is another. I 100% agree with you that my angle should have been more clear, but as I outlined, I did not go anonymous, posted my blog address, and made specific reference to colleagues. I took issue with what he actually said as the primary focus as opposed to his self-admitted history of questionable business ethics. I 100% agree with the President that the course we are on is not sustainable. The observation of the problems that exist is spot on. I am 100% against the public option without addressing the hydraulic funding option. I hope that you are satisfied with my additional full disclosure and welcome your criticism here or on my blog at BlogHealthInsurance.com .

Hey Mark, I just Googled your name and surprise, surprise, it turns out you are the President of Castle Group "Health" Insurance. I'm positively shocked. If you're going to lambast someone who is trying to help solve the current health care crisis, you should at least let your readers know who you are so that they can judge the slant of your argument. I am a university writing teacher, and so that is one of the first things I think about when I read an article or editorial, but you, rightfully, assume that most people won't consider your background. This is typical of the tactics that Wendell Potter so clearly outlines in this very article. I almost feel sorry for you for the anguish you may feel on your deathbed when you realize how much suffering and premature death your industry has caused. But, on the bright side, Wendell Potter has shown it's never too late to make amends. Good luck with that.

There was truth in your criticism. I was not as clear as I should have. The old Forest from the trees. I took for granted that when I said Mr. Petersen, who Mr. Potter accused of being a shill, was a colleague, that was enough. I should have said more even though I was not anonymous. I have provided much great detail in my reply. I hope you will take a second look and address the points regarding the unbalanced and disassociated assumptions Mr. Potter made that I outlined in my original post and reply to Mr. Galligan. If you read my blog, also disclosed in my post, bloghealthinsurance.com, you would see that I completely agree that major reform is needed. MAJOR! I agree with our President that the path we are on is not sustainable. The solutions we completely disagree with. I wouldn't outlaw lawsuits either even though that would save 10-15%. I wouldn't mandate that providers are employees of the government even though that would save money. I wouldn't support paying medical for illegals, even though that would save 1%. Problems, we agree with. Solutions, we don't. I do think that the really good thing about this hammer is that it is promoting democratic talk on the issues. Mr. Potter did not in his testimony or in his other blogs respected the opinions of others. On that, I am sickened and still believe that his tactics are McCarthy-like.

When I worked inpatient addictions treatment the major insurer in the state said no to every admission for anyone, EXCEPT, the addicted son of the CEO of that very insurance company. So all the people who paid their premiums, believed the puffery that claimed they had coverage, and had an addicted child did not get treatment for them while their money paid for the CEO's child to get treatment. I asked why that should be the case and the CEO's secretary said, "Well! He wants his son to get the help he needs!" Just no one else's son, I guess. This author does not overstate the realities here. He is mild in calling out these white collar criminals. Mild.

Note: this is the comment I entered on today's posting of the article on Common Dreams. I would appreciate a response to any posters here and especially of Mr. Potter himself. I would post his response on my weblog, Principled Progressive, if he cared to favor me with one: ................................ This article is in one way inspiring and in another dispiriting. It is inspiring to see such a courageous mea culpa statement from one who had worked for a big insurance company and had taken part in a giant conspiracy to defraud the American people, depriving them of health care in the interests of profits for the health care industry: the very situation that health care "reform" must remedy. The dispiriting part comes from Mr. Potter's message to a crowd in Portland Oregon that is described as "mixed" between the supporters of a public option and of single payer. The location of the "rally" is interesting because it is from Portland that a Mad as Hell caravan of Portland doctors will take off on a cross-country tour in support of single payer, leaving next week bound for, hopefully, a conference with the President in October. See the tour's website at www.madashelldoctors.com See also Ralph Nader's article on today's Common Dreams. Maybe influenced by the crowd's "mix" of banners, Mr. Potter treats the "public option" as one of the features of health care reform for which the rally attenders should advocate. This is not the position of the MH doctors themselves who, on their website, describe the public option as "a trap," which is exactly what I think it is. From all I have learned about it, there is small to no chance that a public option inserted into legislation that is otherwise quite industry-friendly is going to hamper at all the ability of the insurance industry to operate in a way that will continue to deny quality medical care to all Americans of all ages and social statuses. I got a phone call today from a Democracy for America caller who urged me to follow Dr. Howard Dean's support for the public option; Dean having said that, without a public option, the health care reform measure is no "reform." As I tried to tell my caller (and of course it wasn't his job to listen to my argument), the legislation would also be no reform WITH the option, which could be seen as in fact a ploy to attract support for the industry-friendly legislation that (if any) is likely to emerge from Congress. In my view, we do need a mass mobilization for health care reform but not one which has one or two feet caught in the "trap" of the public option provision.