About forty-five thousand people die in America every year because they have no health insurance. I am partly responsible for some of the deaths making up that shameful statistic. As a senior public relations executive, or "spinmeister," for two decades with two of the largest for-profit health insurance companies in the United States — Humana and CIGNA — it was my job to enhance those firms' reputations. But as one of the industry's top public relations executives and media spokesmen, I also helped create and perpetuate myths that had no other purpose but to sustain those companies' extraordinarily high profitability.
For example, if you are among those who believe that the United States has "the best health care system in the world" despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary — it's because my fellow spinmeisters and I succeeded brilliantly at what we were paid very well to do with your premium dollars. In fact, the United States ranks 47th in life expectancy at birth, behind Bosnia, and 54th, behind Bangladesh, in "fairness," a measure of the extent to which the best care is available equally throughout a country.
And if you were persuaded that the health care reform bill President Barack Obama signed into law in March 2010 was "a government takeover of the health care system," my former colleagues and I earned every penny of our handsome salaries. Not to mention our bonuses. From the first day of the Clinton administration in 1993 until shortly before the election of Obama, I was a behind- the- scenes leader in every industry effort to kill any reform legislation that threatened insurance company profits. Although I told people during that period that I never lied to a reporter, the reality is that I often did — but in such subtle ways that I could never even acknowledge to myself that I was purposely trying to mislead. At the time, I was unaware that I was feeding the media and the public false information, and so caught up in the industry's swirling spin machine that I was oblivious to it.
Had it not been for a series of events that occurred in 2007 — events that, as someone raised as a Southern Baptist, I can't help believing were part of some kind of divine intervention — I would probably still be spinning for health insurers.
In retrospect, it seems as if it were predestined that I would become either a witness to or a participant in those events, which would reveal to me just how corrupt and deadly the American health insurance
industry had become, and also how far I had strayed from my own moral path. By the end of 2007, it was inevitable that I would leave my job and begin speaking out against what I consider now to be an evil system built and sustained on greed. I don't mean to imply that all people who work for health insurance companies are greedier or more evil than other Americans. In fact, many of them feel — and justifiably so — that they are helping millions of people get the care they need. Mostly, they are just as unaware as I was for much of my career of what really motivates the top executive officers of the companies they work for.
The health insurance industry today is dominated by a cartel of large, for-profit corporations. By necessity and by law, the top priority of the officers of these companies is to "enhance shareholder value." When that's your top priority, you are motivated more by the obligation to meet Wall Street's relentless profit expectations than by the obligation to meet the medical needs of your policyholders. Some nonprofit insurers still operate in the United States, but they are now behaving the same way — as they must, in order to compete with their for- profit counterparts, lest they be forced to put themselves up for sale or close, as many have already done.
It was not until late in my career that I became aware of the lengths to which insurance company executives will go to meet Wall Street's expectations. The further up the corporate ladder I climbed, the more I saw, and the more disillusioned I became with my job, my profession, and my industry.
From Deadly Spin by Wendell Potter. Copyright 2010 by Wendell Potter. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury.