“My name is Wendell Potter, and for twenty years, I worked as a senior executive at health insurance companies, and I saw how they confuse their customers and dump the sick — all so they can satisfy their Wall Street investors.”
That’s how I introduced myself to the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee on June 24, 2009, and also how I began the first chapter of my book, Deadly Spin, which is out today.
I set fire to a lot of bridges when I accepted Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s invitation to testify as part of his investigation into health insurance company practices that for years have been swelling the ranks of the uninsured and the underinsured in the United States. With the publication of my book — the subtitle of which is, “An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out On How Corporate PR Is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans” — I am torching a few more.
I describe in the book how a huge share of Americans’ health-care premiums bankrolls relentless propaganda and lobbying efforts focused on protecting one thing: profits. I also describe how the industry’s PR onslaught drastically weakened health-care reform and how it plays an insidious and often invisible role in our political process anywhere that corporate profits are at stake, from climate change to defense policy.
They’re going to kill you, Wendell,” a former CIGNA colleague warned in an email after reading a couple of chapters this morning. “If I were you, I wouldn’t get anywhere near a cliff.”
He obviously had read the chapter in which I described the meticulously planned and deception-based strategy the health insurance industry developed and carried out — with help from one of Washington’s biggest PR firms — to discredit documentary maker Michael Moore and his 2007 movie, Sicko. Because the movie laid much of the blame for the seemingly intractable problems of the American health care system on insurers, the industry I used to work for spent a big chunk of policyholders’ premiums on a behind-the-scenes campaign to demonize Moore and to misinform Americans about the health-care systems in Canada and Europe that — as Moore explained in the movie — provide coverage for all their citizens and provide high quality care for them at much lower costs than we do in the U.S.
“If Sicko showed signs of being as influential in shaping public opinion on health care reform as An Inconvenient Truth had been in changing attitudes about climate change,” I wrote in the chapter entitled, “The Campaign Against Sicko,” “then the industry would have to consider implementing a plan ‘to push Moore off the cliff,'” as the industry’s high-paid PR consultants warned in a secretive meeting of industry executives in Philadelphia shortly after the movie’s U.S. premiere. The consultants didn’t mean that literally (or at least I don’t think they did). Rather, they were assuring the executives that the industry’s trade association, America’s Health Insurance Plans, would wage an all-out effort to depict Moore as someone intent on destroying the free-market health care system and with it, the American way of life.
Those of us at that Philadelphia meeting knew that the campaign against Sicko would be a warm-up act to the health-care-reform debate that we all knew would begin in Congress as soon as the next president took office.
Few Americans know what a central role the health-insurance industry played in the fear-mongering and anger-mongering campaign against the Democrats’ original vision of reform, which included a “public option” that would have competed against private insurance companies and which President Obama said early in the debate was necessary to “keep insurers honest.”
Insurers were able to kill the public option and weaken the reform bill, but it couldn’t kill it. Despite conventional wisdom, insurers didn’t want to kill it because the requirement that all Americans buy private coverage if they’re not eligible for a public program like Medicare and Medicaid will ensure their profitability for years to come.
They do, however, want to weaken the bill further, which is why the industry funneled millions of policyholders’ premiums this year into the campaigns of Republican candidates and round-the-clock advertising based on lies about the new reform law.
I describe this in Deadly Spin, which is why I will not go near any cliffs anytime soon. The reason I wrote the book was not just to pull the curtains back on the devious tactics insurers use to get their way — in the marketplace and on Capitol Hill — but to warn about the consequences to our democracy of the ever-increasing power of corporations at a time when the mainstream media is in decline.
The onslaughts of spin will not stop, the distortions will not diminish, and the spin will not slow down. To the contrary, spin begets spin, as the successes of corporate PR functionaries increase the revenues of their employers, further funding their employers’ efforts to create a more hospitable climate for their business interests. Americans are thus being faced with increasingly subtle but effective assaults on their beliefs and perceptions. Their best defense right now is to understand and to recognize the sophisticated tactics of the spinners trying to manipulate them.
Most important is a singular mandate: Be skeptical.