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Wendell Potter's Long 15 Minutes as the Bane of the Health Insurance Industry

5 years ago
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Wendell Potter is having a moment, or maybe a year. Just this week, he appeared at a Monday forum (on the "undue influence" of lobbyists) and a Tuesday forum (on "the need for comprehensive health insurance reform"). The former Cigna executive also squeezed in a dinner to discuss his evolution from health insurance propagandist to celebrity whistleblower.
"I've just been amazed at the opportunities I've had. I don't think I've turned down an interview request yet. I just keep going. I'll tell almost anybody about what I know and what I've learned over the past 20 years," Potter told a few reporters over Chinese takeout in the deserted offices of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.
Potter has testified before Congress and appeared on PBS with Bill Moyers. Networks, newspapers and magazines have profiled him. He's a fellow -- and a star -- at the Center for Media and Democracy, which says its mission is to expose government and corporate spin. Potter has his own blog at the CMD Web site. His upcoming events are listed on the homepage under a "Where's Wendell?" logo.
A soft-spoken man with glasses and receding, close-cropped gray hair, with a flamboyance factor of minus 100, Potter is an unlikely rebel. He is about as opposite as you can get from someone like, say, Michael Moore. In fact one of his tasks was to prepare the industry campaign to discredit "Sicko," Moore's 2007 broadside against the U.S. health care system. But even at the time, he says, "I knew that he had made a pretty good documentary. He didn't make anything up."
Potter says his choice to switch sides was "very scary," but he's not shy about making his case. He says U.S. insurance companies spread selective information about health systems in Canada and Britain and misinformation about the American system -- from who is uninsured and why, to how much competition there is in the health insurance business. He talks about shills and front groups and duplicity, about confusing customers, dumping the sick, and driving up profits for Wall Street.
Some people are in plans with such high deductibles that they can't afford treatment, Potter says, so the premiums they pay are sheer profit. The Senate Finance Committee bill is a gift to insurance companies, he says, because it gives them flexibility to design more plans like that.
As director of corporate communications, Potter was, of course, an integral part of all this before he tried to stop it. His excuse is that he was enveloped in the culture. "You feel like the frog in the water," he says. "Over time . . . it seems normal."
That ended in July 2007, about a month after "Sicko" came out, when Potter visited his parents in coal country near Wise, Va. He learned about a clinic that a medical relief group called Remote Area Medical was conducting at the fairgrounds. Out of curiosity, he borrowed his father's car and showed up. He found hundreds and hundreds of people lined up for care and had an epiphany. "I was crying. I couldn't stand it," he said. Still, he didn't quit.
A few months later, Cigna denied a liver transplant to 17-year-old Nataline Sarkisyan of California, igniting a firestorm of protests. Potter, one of the few named people on the company Web site, was inundated with hate mail and calls. "My life was absolute hell," he said. Furthermore, "I have a daughter myself. I could just imagine what the family was going through."
The company, which had called the transplant experimental, gave in and agreed to cover it on Dec. 20. But it was too late. The girl died that night. In January, Potter told Cigna he would be leaving.
It was May before he actually left, and he didn't intend to go public with his feelings. But one day on TV he heard an insurance industry spokesman waging a misleading "charm offensive" and a conservative congressman trying to get people to believe talking points Potter used to spout himself. "I just got so agitated, I said I can't stand this." Soon he was contacting former journalists he knew, who were contacting Senate aides they knew. Potter made his public debut on June 24, 2009, as a witness before the Senate Commerce Committee.
Potter seems both galled and disappointed that the industry has a central role in the reform effort, and in the compromises President Obama appears ready to make. He says reform will be useless without a public plan to provide real competition. Regulations won't work, he says, nor will a public option be triggered in the future if the industry doesn't drive down prices and cover more people. "The trigger will never be pulled," he says. "They'll know what will trigger the trigger."
Cigna has been restrained in its response to Potter. After his June testimony, the company simply said in a statement that "we strongly disagree with the suggestion that, motivated by profits, the insurance industry has deliberately attempted to confuse or unfairly treat covered individuals."
Potter, the PR professional, says he understands why Cigna has not gone on the attack against him. That would make him a bigger story. "I think the industry thought my 15 minutes would be over pretty quickly," he says with a smile. From the looks of it, his 15 minutes will stretch at least to the day Obama signs a reform bill. Assuming there is one to sign.
Filed Under: Health Care

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