Flickr image by Center for American Progress
Wendell Potter has been in the news quite a bit lately. He's the former health insurance industry executive who is now speaking out about industry practices as we debate how to reform our current system of care. Welcome to OpEdNews, Wendell. Can you give our readers a bit of background about yourself?
I sure can. I'm a former journalist. I was a reporter and worked in Washington for a few years before I got into public relations. And I worked in the insurance industry for almost twenty years in the public relations and communications capacity and, most recently, head of corporate communications for CIGNA. I left that job in May of 2008.
While you were a PR executive, your job was to give health insurance a positive spin. Was that hard to do? Were you unaware of what was going on across the country?
For most of my career, I didn't feel conflicted. I felt strongly for many years in my career that the industry's intent was to get more people covered, and to add more people in plans that would actually get them the care they needed. It was only in the latter part of my career that I became aware that the health insurance industry was contributing more and more to the problem of the uninsured and to a growing and fairly new problem of the underinsured. And as I also climbed the corporate ladder, I was more aware of the kinds of health care plans that the insurance companies were trying to move us all into. They all featured high deductibles. And it was clear to me that middle Americans, people who are average wage-earners, sooner or later will not be able to afford to access care even if they have insurance because of the high deductibles they are expected to meet.
It was a gradual understanding of the health insurance industry that took place over the course of a few years. But there were a couple of events that made it more abundantly clear to me just exactly how much of a problem we have in this country. That occurred when I was visiting my parents in Tennessee a couple of summers ago and I saw in a local newspaper that an event was being held in Wise County, Virginia, which is fifty miles up the road from where I grew up in East Tennessee. I borrowed my dad's car and drove up there because I was curious. It was being organized by this group called Remote Area Medical - it was a group that originally came together to fly doctors to South America to provide care to people in the Amazon jungle area. The founder of the organization, Stan Brock, realized pretty soon that there was a huge need for care in this country. So he started holding what he called expeditions in areas across the country and he's held, I think, over 500 expeditions so far.
The one I went to in Wise County was one that has been held every year for eight years. And it was held at the Fairgrounds in Wise County. When I got to the Fairground gates, I saw thousands of people lined up, waiting to get care that was being provided to them on a charity basis by doctors and nurses and other caregivers who were volunteering their time over three days. And these people were lined up, many of them to get care that was being provided in animal stalls and in barns. It was raining that day and a lot of these people were standing in the rain and many of them had slept overnight in their cars to be assured of getting inside the Fairgrounds to get care. It was so just amazing to me.
I had never seen anything like it or heard anything like that before. It just hit home to me - that this was the plight that many Americans are now finding themselves in and more and more Americans will in the future if we don't do something to radically reform our health care system. A lot of people, I learned later, have a policy and are in these plans we mentioned earlier that require them to pay so much out of their own pocket that they can't afford to go to the doctor, or pick up their medications, or get their eyeglasses, or go to the dentist. And many of them are in benefit plans that are so limited that they don't cover what they need. I also found out later that some of these people have told the organizers of Remote Area Medical that their insurance companies encouraged them to call them because the insurance companies couldn't help them. It was just amazing, the insurance companies were telling the policy holders to call organizations like Remote Area Medical to get care.
You mentioned that this organization started out working in the Amazon jungle but has seen a need in the United State and has done 500 so far. Is that all across the country?
It is. They started out primarily in rural areas throughout the county, even on Indian reservations. But also, they're beginning to do some in urban areas. The first urban expedition was held recently in Los Angeles, and over eight days they served thousands of people who needed care. So it's a need. I met with Stan Brock in Washington yesterday [Wednesday]. He was there providing testimony before Congress about the need that he and his fellow volunteers meet. And he was telling me that they're hoping to have [an expedition] in Washington. I'm hoping that they will so that maybe policy makers and members of Congress can volunteer their time to go help out.
Can you supply us with the link to that organization so that people can read about this organization?
Yes, it's RAMUSA.org Do go to that website you'll be amazed at what you see. There are links to news coverage over the recent past including a segment on 60 Minutes that's very compelling. So I would encourage people to go to that site and learn more about that organization. It's doing wonderful things and Stan Brock, in my view, is a real saint.
Sounds terrific. You ended up quitting CIGNA. But you didn't stop there. You became a whistleblower. I'm assuming you didn't quit thinking "This is bad. I've got to go tell someone about it." Or did you? How did the decision to blow the whistle evolve?
Well, you're exactly right. When I left my job, I didn't know exactly what I was going to do. All I knew was that I didn't want to keep doing what I was doing. So I did a little bit of consulting work after I left. And it wasn't until President Obama had his health care summit at the White House in March that I really decided that I just can't stay on the sidelines, I need to speak out. The head of the big trade group for the insurance industry, Karen Ignagni, was at that summit and she was on television assuring the President that the insurance companies would be working cooperatively with him and with the Congress on reform this year and I knew that was disingenuous. I had been a part of efforts to plan PR campaigns and lobbying campaigns to shape reform to benefit health insurance companies and I knew that's what their motives really were. And they weren't interested in the best health care reform for Americans, but [were out] for themselves.
And then, a
little after that, I saw another executive of that same organization, America's
Health Insurance Plans [AHIP] being introduced by Chris Matthews on Hard Ball
on MSNBC and he was saying essentially the same thing. That this time, as he
put it, the insurance companies are coming to the table with solutions. And I
knew that was also disingenuous. The solutions they had in mind were solutions
that would work for the insurance industry more than they'd work for anybody
And then I heard a congressman being interviewed from Tennessee, a Republican from Chattanooga, Zach Wamp. And he was being interviewed right after the summit. And he was using some of the same talking points that I had helped develop and that I'd heard other people use who were shills for the insurance industry. He was saying in response to a question about the number of people who don't have insurance in this country that half the people who don't have insurance don't have it by choice. They could buy it if they wanted to but they decided to go naked, as he put it. And I knew that had come from the insurance companies because that's what insurance executives say. "What problem? We don't have a big problem here. It's mainly that people just don't buy what they should buy to give themselves coverage, protection." That just really made me mad. I recognized that he was part of the efforts to work on behalf of the insurance industry to shape reform or kill it. and I decided to just start speaking out and telling people like it is.
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