Former Health Care Exec Criticizes The Industry

Madeleine Brand talks to Wendell Potter, a former chief spokesman at the Cigna Corporation, one of the nation's largest health insurers. Appearing before the Senate Commerce Committee in June, he criticized the health care industry for putting profits before patients. He is now a senior fellow at the Center for Media and Democracy.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

One person who knows both sides of the health care debate is Wendell Potter. He was a top executive at Cigna Healthcare. He was working there the last time a Democratic president tried to massively overhaul health care and that was back in the early '90s. Last year, Wendell Potter became disillusioned with his industry, and he left to become an advocate of health care reform.

He recently testified in front of Congress. He told senators that the industry works, in his words, to confuse their customers and dump the sick, all so they can satisfy their Wall Street investors. Recently I spoke with Wendell Potter and I asked him to contrast the approach the health care industry used to oppose Clinton-era proposals with the industry's current strategy.

Mr. WENDELL POTTER (Center for Media and Democracy): There are a lot of similarities, but the big difference is that the industry was a bit more upfront in its intentions and its advertising. There was the famous or infamous Harry and Louise commercials that were paid for and produced by the health insurance industry.

They're not doing anything like that right now, but one component then and one component now is PR campaigns that you don't really see. I call their efforts duplicitous because you do see, on one hand, their charm offensive(ph) for things that they want people to believe about them and they will say what people want them to hear.

Behind the scenes, though - and that's where the real work is being done - and it's - you see it being played out now through third party groups and front groups that the industry funds. You're seeing it playing out in terms of the way that some of these town halls are being disrupted. It went on in 1993, '94 as well, to kill health care reform - and that's really the objective this time around as well.

BRAND: You're saying the people who are disrupting these town halls are actually being paid for by the insurance companies?

Mr. POTTER: Indirectly. The money that the insurance industry funnels into front groups and other organizations is kind of hard to trace because it usually flows through PR firms and into these organizations that are established for no other purpose except to denounce or demean a certain approach to health care reform that happened essentially to try to blunt the effects of the movie "Sicko." So this is something that the industry has done many times and has been very successful for the industry many times.

BRAND: Part of the difference from what I understand this time around is that the insurance industries seem to be behind a large portion of the legislation that's going through Congress right now, with the exception of the public option. They have agreed to go along with this idea that you can't dump people who have pre-existing conditions from coverage, for example. And I'm wondering if you see them as coming a long way or at least partway towards your position?

Mr. POTTER: Well, those are good things that need to be done. But I question their sincerity because you can look at congressional testimony from 1993 and you can find them saying absolutely, exactly the same things. But as soon as the spotlight passes and health care, as it has in the past, has failed, they've made no effort to make good on those assurances.

BRAND: Of course people on the other side say, well, once you have a government option you're going to force the private insurance companies out of business, because as a government-run entity, you'll be able to undercut them. Once they're out of business, the quality of care will suffer.

Mr. POTTER: No, it's not at all true. In fact, you've got examples that already exist in our economy. You got the postal service competing with UPS and FedEx and you throw other sectors of the economy where there is a public or quasi-public entity that competes with the private sector - and quite well. And they work to keep each other honest.

BRAND: You mentioned the Michael Moore movie "Sicko," and I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about the money the insurance company pours into this debate.

Mr. POTTER: I think there's no doubt that money makes a big difference and money from the insurance industry and that film did note that. A lot of the insurance money right now is going to very influential Democrats in Congress, Senator Max Baucus in particular, who is very pivotal in the Senate as chair of the Senate Finance Committee.

The Blue Dog Democrats are getting a lot of attention from the insurance industry. One thing that has happened over the several years, particularly during the Bush years, the industry was focusing a lot on the Republic Party and most of the donations from the political action committees and executives went to Republican candidates, to the point that they essentially have them sewn up. They can expect the Republicans in both the House and the Senate to vote the way they want them to vote on almost every issue.

And the focus - knowing that - they have focused a lot of their time and attention and money on the so-called Blue Dog Democrats and others who are -would be considered moderate to conservative because they are the ones that they think they can peel away from supporting a public option. That's what's going on and millions and millions of dollars are being spent to do that and more than 300 lobbyists representing the health insurance industry are working on Capitol Hill every day.

BRAND: Wendell Potter used to be a PR executive at Cigna and Humana. He quit and is now with the Center for Media and Democracy. Thank you very much.

Mr. POTTER: Thank you.

BRAND: And for more perspectives on the health care debate, you can go to our Web site, the new npr.org.

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