That’s really the only message I want to convey in this post, appropriately on Thanksgiving. I’ll get back to other matters soon enough, but today I just want to express my gratitude for being so richly blessed and for being able to do what at long last I feel is my right livelihood.
Among the people and things I am especially thankful for is Nataline Sarkisyan. I’m grateful for the role she played in changing the course of my life and career and for, well, making the world a better place.
In December 2007, this 17-year-old girl was fighting for her life in a Los Angeles hospital and a medical director in a CIGNA office 2,000 miles away denied coverage for a liver transplant her doctors said she urgently needed.
At the time, I was CIGNA’s VP of corporate communications. I was the guy who had the unenviable job of trying to explain and justify the company’s decision. Within minutes after a blogger first brought the case to the attention of the Daily Kos community — after hearing about it herself from the California Nurses Association — I was on the receiving end of what seemed like an endless stream of emails and phone calls from the media and ordinary outraged folks all over the globe.
Largely as a result of the publicity and public outrage, CIGNA agreed to authorize coverage for the transplant.
I wish this story had a happy ending. Unfortunately, the company’s change of heart came too late. By the time her family and doctors got the news, Nataline’s health had deteriorated to the point that she was no longer eligible for a new liver. She died hours later, five days before Christmas.
As I write in my book, Deadly Spin, I decided then that I could no longer in good conscience continue serving as a spokesman for an industry that I had begun to see was directly responsible for the growing number of people who die every year because they can’t afford private insurance or because they often don’t get the care their doctors say they need even if they are insured.
A little more than a year later, in June 2009, I decided to take a big risk and begin speaking out against the often-lethal practices of an industry I had served for nearly two decades. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done but without a doubt the most important.
There are so many people who helped me in my transformation from a pitchman for the industry to one of its most vocal critics that I undoubtedly would leave out more than a few if I attempted to thank them all by name.
Several are people I never met or could meet, like Nataline. I know it will sound hokey, but they also include George Washington and Ben Franklin and John Adams and America’s other founding fathers. You see, I am privileged to be able to live a few blocks from Independence Hall in Philadelphia and to be able to walk the same streets that some of the most courageous people who ever lived also walked.
There were many times that I talked myself out of going public with what I know. I was afraid of retaliation, of never being able to find a decent job again, of putting my family at risk. I can’t tell you how many times I walked to Independence National Park just to look at the statues of men who risked a lot more than I was considering risking to do what they felt in their hearts was the right thing to do.
The statue I sat near most often was that of Robert Morris, who I frankly didn’t remember from my studies of American history. It is quite likely, however, that I wouldn’t be writing this and you wouldn’t be reading this if it hadn’t been for the sacrifices Robert Morris made. Here’s what the plaque next to his statue says:
Robert Morris risked his life, wealth, and reputation to help create the United States of America… During the Revolutionary War, Morris used his genius for finance and his maritime trading connections to secure vital funds and supplies for the Continental Army. As Superintendent of Finance (1781-1784), Morris rescued the new nation from financial ruin. He stabilized the economy by creating the first national bank, a model for our modern banking system.
When I wrote the acknowledgements section of my book, I considered starting it by thanking Robert Morris. I decided against it because I worried that people would think I was trying to be just a little too clever. Today I don’t care what people think, to tell you the truth. What matters to me more than anything, these days is to, well, tell the truth.
So, thank you Robert Morris. The least I can do besides acknowledging the role you played in making our democracy possible is to join forces with the many other true patriots who are determined to restore that democracy, to take our country back from the corporations and plutocrats who care more about enriching themselves and their friends than meeting the needs of people who are not as rich as they are. And that is almost all of us.
And thank you, thank you, Nataline Sarkisyan. Your life made the world a better place, and your death made me a better person.