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Part Two, Talking with Former Health Insurance Executive Wendell Potter

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Welcome back for the second installment of my interview with former health insurance executive Wendell Potter. So, Wendell. You decided to speak out. How did you go about figuring out who to talk to?

I reached out to people who I thought might put me in contact with people on Capitol Hill. Among them was Len Nichols of the New America Foundation, a health care policy expert I knew of and had met once before. He introduced me to someone else who introduced me to someone else who finally led me to the people at Health Care For America Now. And they met with me and suggested that I meet with members of Sen. Jay Rockefeller's Commerce Committee staff. So I did that. I spent a couple of hours meeting with them and they invited me to come to provide testimony before the full Commerce Committee and I did that. And that occurred on June 24th. That marked the day that I officially began speaking out as a critic of the health insurance industry.

How did you find the response in Congress? Were they open and interested in what you had to say?

By and large, yes. Sen. Rockefeller, absolutely. He is someone I really admire because I knew, and this was confirmed since, that he is one who truly understands how our health care system works, what its many flaws are. He has some very good ideas on ways we need to fix their system and there are many others who are knowledgeable in similar ways. I've also found, though, that many people in Congress have a very superficial understanding of the health insurance industry so what I've been doing is I've met privately with many members of Congress since that testimony.

I've also testified before two other Congressional committees and I've found that by and large I've had a good reception. Even the Republicans on the Committees who had asked me questions when I testified - they've been polite; they haven't attacked me. I felt this was a good sign. Clearly, there are many members of Congress who see the world from the same eyes that the insurance industry does. And largely. they're Republican. I don't expect to persuade any Republicans to see things from a reformer's perspective. But most Democrats get it. They understand and they're really working hard for reform.

There are many who would say that while Congress is debating this vigorously, that they are essentially leaving the system as is and tweaking around the edges in which case it's like leaving the foxes guarding the chicken coop. Is that a fair assessment or do you think they're seriously considering reform?

Well I think we'd all like to have better reform than we'll probably end up with. I do think that there were strategic errors and mistakes in strategy by those who are advocating reform in the White House and on Capitol Hill. I'm just really disappointed that they didn't begin to explain the merits of the single-payer system, for example.

I agree with you there.

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That should have been given a real fair hearing and it was not. In fact, I think some members of Congress just said that it's not on the table this year. And single payer should have been offered up as a possible solution because what they wound up with is negotiating from the middle with members of Congress who are clearly aligned with the health insurance industry and other special interests. So, I think that was a strategic mistake. Plus, I think that Americans just don't really understand the merits of the single payer system. Even after something is ultimately passed - and hopefully something will be passed that is helpful - I'd like to encourage the advocates to stay in there, keep fighting for it, and regroup and look to the future because I think it's something that we'll have to consider, probably in the near future rather than the distant future.

To go along with what you said about Congress not really considering single payer, at the Senate Roundtable discussion that Sen. Max Baucus chaired earlier this year, there were physicians who stood up in the hall and mentioned single-payer in a respectful tone and eight of them were escorted one by one out of the hall and arrested. So, Baucus and Co. certainly weren't even open to the mere mention of single-payer and it certainly was never on the table.

You're right and that was a time that I remember. I wasn't there. But it was just incredible to me that the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, a Democrat, would take that kind of action and just shut down debate and not even talk about single payer. It's just a tragedy.

Let's go at this from another angle. With so much lobbying and large scale campaign contributions coming from the health care industry, do you think that Congress can produce meaningful reform?

I'm hopeful that reform will be meaningful. I don't think it will be the ultimate solution to what we really need. But hopefully it will be something that is helpful. A lot of the practices that the insurance industry engages in should be unlawful, should be made illegal such as using pre-existing conditions to exclude people from coverage or to drop people from coverage. And we do need to have a public insurance option to compete against the insurance companies. I think that's vitally important. If we don't have a public option, then I will be very skeptical that the health care reform, if we get it, will be worthwhile. Although again, I think that some of the practices need to be made illegal. That would be a start. But without the public option it certainly won't be anything close to the kind of reform that we need.

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Up until now, the industry has been very effective in marginalizing and demonizing people who criticized the present health care set-up. That is less true now, but when Michael Moore came out with his documentary "Sicko" the industry had developed an effective plan to marginalize him. Could you talk about that? I think it's particularly relevant now.

It is important now because it shows the lengths the industry will go to try to defend the current system and to demonize anyone who challenges it. The insurance industry knew that the movie more than likely would portray the industry in a poor light, that's just because there's just so much to work with. We didn't know exactly know - and when I say "we" I'm talking about back when I was still working in the industry - we didn't know exactly what he was going to be doing because he held it very close to the vest.

So, the industry sent a spy, if you will, someone who worked in the industry, to the Cannes Film Festival in France to go to the premiere of the movie there and then to call back for a conference call in which all of us were listening in to find out exactly what the movie was all about. That gave the industry what it needed to begin developing its PR strategy to try to demonize Moore and demonize the movie.

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)
 

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