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Part Three: Talking with Former Health Insurance Executive Wendell Potter

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Welcome back for the conclusion of my interview with former health insurance executive, Wendell Potter. Let's circle back to the more personal for a bit, Wendell. When you decided to leave the health insurance business. What did your family think about all of this? You were making a very comfortable living for many years being a spokesman for the industry. You were good at it. And suddenly, you bolted and jumped to the other side.

Well, they were concerned, obviously. But they knew that I was not happy. This had been going on for some time. I was not feeling good about what I was doing, and it was taking a toll on me. I just simply was not pleasant to be around much of the time because I was trying to deal with it and not knowing exactly what to do. To walk away from a good paying job is not easy and I had to think about my family's welfare. But they had been supportive throughout this. I tried to prepare them for the worst, but they've been very supportive; the kids are very proud of what I'm doing. They've gone to some of the public appearances that I've made. They're always interested in seeing me on TV; it's been great. And I feel like they finally know what I'm doing and they're proud of what I'm doing.

You're right. That is great. So, over the last year or so, your life has changed in a major way. You're no longer employed by the health care industry and it's unlikely that you'll go back there in the near future. Did your former employers or the industry at large move to discredit you and your testimony? You made them look bad at an inconvenient moment, when the country is in the midst of a debate on health care reform.

You know it's been a dilemma for them. They haven't really known exactly how to deal with me. And I knew that they would have some difficulty because they know what I'm saying is true. It's been interesting because there have been many times when I agreed to appear on a TV program, for example, or a radio program, or in the public forum and someone has been invited from the health insurance industry or from a health insurance company but every single time they've said "I'm sorry. We can't find anyone. Everyone's just too busy." They simply won't appear on the same platform with me because they know what I'd say, the issues I would raise and the questions I would ask them. They'd be hard-pressed to answer in an honest way and give an answer that would satisfy anyone who would be in the audience.

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So, they can't attack me publicly because they knew that I served in my job very well. I left under amicable conditions. It was my decision to leave plus, they don't want to attack me because they don't want to keep the story going. I think that was their initial strategy: let's not say anything about Wendell and if we don't, maybe the media will lose interest in it. What I have found is that some of their allies in the blogosphere, some of the right-wing bloggers have occasionally attacked me but it's only been occasional; it hasn't been frequent.

I presume that you had friends and colleagues in the industry. What do they think about your actions?

I do have a lot of friends in the industry. Many who also have left for one reason or another, some have lost their jobs through layoffs and others just because they wanted to go on and do something else. They've all been very supportive, every single one has reached out to me. And there have been dozens of them who have been very supportive. Many of them have said "I wish I could do the same thing but I'm just not in a position to do it." Some have provided me with additional insight and information that I've been able to use. It's been very rewarding. People who still work in the industry have not reached out to me. I'm not surprised because I don't think they would know exactly what to say and they would be concerned to have a conversation with me that anyone would find out about.

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They might be threatened also by what you're saying because if they think about it too hard that could upset their comfortable life.

You are exactly right. I've thought about that many times and I know that they know that what I'm saying is true. And I know that many of them are undoubtedly having many of the same thoughts I had before I left. It's not easy. If you're bringing home money and it's buying you a comfortable existence, sometimes people just make that trade-off and can't make the move to have a clean conscience, or a clear conscience, which I thought was imperative for me to do.

Since you're no longer welcome nor do you desire to work for the health insurance industry, how are you putting food on the table these days?

The Center for Media and Democracy has been a terrific organization to work with and they've helped me put the food on the table. I make far, far less than I made when I worked for the industry. I work as a Senior Fellow on Health Care at the Center for Media and Democracy. I love the organization; they've done good work over many years exposing some of the things we're talking about now, the dirty tricks that corporations commit to try to manipulate public opinion or influence action on Capitol Hill and I'm very proud to be associated with them.

Does being a whistleblower make you a more or less promising candidate in the job market?

Well, it depends on, I guess, the job that I would be considered for or would look for. I don't consider myself a whistleblower, to tell you the truth. I don't mind people calling me that, but in the technical and legal sense, I'm not blowing the whistle on a former employer. I'm talking about industry practices, not specifically anything that CIGNA or Humana did that I was aware of when I was there. So in that sense, I'm trying to inform people.

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As I said earlier, I was a former journalist and I see what I'm doing to a certain extent what journalists try to do - to enlighten, to inform, to disclose information that hasn't been disclosed otherwise. And I'm in a unique position to do that from having spent the time I've spent in the industry. So again, I don't mind if people call me a whistleblower. But I see myself, in a sense, just as a journalist. I blog, I speak, I give interviews, I talk with other journalists. So, I feel like I'm part of the journalistic community again.

I read earlier this week that a group from MoveOn has been traveling around the country with Dawn Smith, a woman with a brain tumor. Apparently, she needs surgery but CIGNA canceled her policy. At every stop along the way, people gathered to tell their own insurance horror stories, which MoveOn collects in pill containers. The trip began in Atlanta and has included stops to talk with members of Congress. Dawn and her entourage will end up today at CIGNA's office in Philadelphia today [Thursday] to try to meet with the company's CEO H. Edward Hanway. They plan to hand over to Hanway all the stories in pill containers they've collected along the way. Do you want to comment?

I don't really know much more about this story than what you read. Anyone who is trying to persuade an insurance company to reverse a denial, my heart goes out to them. Because I know that many people are in desperate straits when they're told that the insurance that they thought would be there for them is not. I wouldn't want to be in my old job at CIGNA right now to have to have to respond to this. And I wouldn't want to be the CEO to have to deal with this either. I don't know enough about the details but I do know that people are denied coverage for procedures they need on a daily basis by a lot of insurance companies. It's one of the things that needs to be fixed in our system and one of the things people have to be mindful of. When you hear allies of the insurance industry say "We don't want to have a government bureaucrat standing between patients and our doctors," people need to stop and think that what we have now is maybe even worse - we have a corporate bureaucrat, a corporate executive in many cases, standing between a patient and his/her doctor. And often that corporate bureaucrat knows that he has to do his job to meet Wall Street's expectations.

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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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