Wendell Potter on ‘Obamacare: What’s in It for Me?’

Michael Moore has called Wendell Potter “the Daniel Ellsberg of corporate America.” In 2008 Potter walked away from a lucrative 20-year career at the top of public relations for CIGNA and other insurance companies to pull back the curtain on the large-scale, well-planned PR campaigns giant corporations use to prevent political change – including secret efforts to attack Sicko that would, if necessary, include “pushing Michael Moore off a cliff.” (As Moore explained later, this was nothing personal – corporate America is happy to push all of us off a cliff.) For more, see Potter’s first book, Deadly Spin.

Now Potter’s written a short guide to Obamacare, explaining its benefits and how to take advantage of them no matter your situation – whether you already get insurance via your job, work for or own a small business, or you’re self-employed or unemployed. I talked to Potter about his book and his take on where things will go now with U.S. healthcare:

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Given that this was such a big deal for the Obama administration, you would think that they’d be on top of it. Are you surprised that you needed to write this book?

Yes, I was shocked that I had to write this. But from the very beginning of the healthcare debate I’ve been surprised by how inadequately the administration and congressional Democrats have promoted and explained what they’re doing. And I kept thinking, surely they’ll get it together and do something like this book. But it never happened. It’s baffling to me.

One of the things I’ve realized since coming over to the other side is just how clueless Democrats are when it comes to public relations. So it’s no wonder that they’re always getting their butts kicked. And it’s not rocket science. All you have to do is step back and see how the Republicans do what they do, and emulate it. What the Republicans have figured out is when you need to communicate with someone, you have to do it consistently, you have to have a message that resonates, you have to connect with people emotionally. And you have to say the same thing over and over again.

Now, preferably what you say should be the truth. And the Democrats have the truth on their side, they have something that’s of great benefit to lots of people. But they just don’t seem to want to figure out to communicate in a way that can make a difference.

If you had been given the job of running the PR for Obamacare, how would you have done it?

First I would have taken a look at what we expected the opposition to do, which wasn’t hard. Clearly there were going to be some people who had to pay more, because they had junk insurance plans and often didn’t know it. So for people who wouldn’t be getting subsidies, their costs would increase but they’d actually have real insurance. So you have a defense ready to go and can deal with attacks very quickly.

But you also have to have an offense, a way to communicate concisely what the benefits are. Then you make sure all your allies understand what that strategy is and are on board with it.

The Republicans do this all the time. When the Affordable Care Act was up for a vote in the House, back in November of 2009, I was watching it on C-Span, and almost every Republican who got up to speak called it “a government takeover of healthcare.” That shows how disciplined they are when it comes to messaging.

The Democrats are not. Everyone’s a lone ranger. So I would have tried to impress on the allies of the administration that you can’t do that if you want to win in the court of public opinion.

William Greider has said that to understand the Republican party, you need to know that it really is run by people from the world of corporate PR. And when you look at their policies, you should imagine what would happen if the people in charge of GM’s PR were also in charge of designing the cars. So you’d have a lot of fantastic, persuasive ads for amazing-looking cars that were constantly exploding and killing everyone inside.

From the end of my time in the healthcare industry, we knew that polling had turned against us. This was right around Sicko, in 2007. And we were concerned that Americans would be willing to consider a single-payer system. So we went to work right away to change public opinion. And we were making progress.

So It’s a miracle that we got anything passed, and if the debate had gone on a few more weeks I don’t think we would have. Because they were beginning to win the PR battle.

Now that Obamacare exists, what do you find are the biggest misconceptions about it?

The misconceptions are that it’s going to result in everyone having to pay more for healthcare, and that there aren’t any benefits to it. Americans have very short term memories. And anything that goes wrong from here will be blamed on Obamacare.

So they don’t remember that they’d previously been getting premium increases year in and year out. They also don’t know that – and this is actually one of the reasons I left the industry – there has been a longstanding push by insurance companies to get people into high deductible plans, and that will continue. They’ll have to pay more out of their own pocket.

They also just don’t know the basics. They think that if their state isn’t expanding Medicaid that it also won’t have an exchange. And most folks never truly needed their insurance before, so they don’t know how many more protections they now have. They don’t think about how before Obamacare – with rescission, caps on lifetime benefits and constant denials for any preexisting conditions – their situations really could have gone south in a hurry.

Most of all they just haven’t been paying close attention, so they’re easily persuaded by news coverage — which has been relentlessly negative — that it’s bad and it’s impossible for the government to reform the system in a beneficial way.

But that goes back to the original PR question, there just hasn’t been a sustained effort to explain to people what this law is.

What do you think will be the main lines of attack on Obamacare now, not just rhetorically, but in terms of actually changing the law? I assume they won’t be able to totally repeal it immediately, but how will they try to weaken it?

They’ll try to continue to try to privatize Medicaid, to push as many states as possible to turn their programs over to insurance companies. And they’ll try to make inroads into Medicare, to privatize as much of it as they can. If you look at the financial analysts who work for the healthcare sector, you know they see great opportunities for profit with Medicare.

It’s also inevitable that insurance regulation will be enforced less vigorously in some red states. There will be abuses and violations of the law and they’ll just look the other way.

I think Obamacare could in theory be an amazing organizing opportunity for liberals, in both red and blue states, if we got our act together. Medicaid expansion is a very concrete benefit for regular people, and additional Medicare dollars are a very concrete benefit for hospitals and doctors. And there are real openings to improve Obamacare in blue states.

Yes, that’s true, by 2017 states will be able to experiment with some provisions of the Affordable Care Act. Vermont is moving toward implementing a single-payer system. That’s extremely important. Canada didn’t get single-payer all at once, it started with near-universal healthcare in Saskatchewan before it was adopted on a national scale, and it took many years.

Many positive things could happen here if advocates are smart and they play nice together. But most of the organizations that could provide funding to support this, foundations and others, don’t see that the battle isn’t over. That’s a big, big mistake. A physician friend of mine in Indiana is trying to get some money to put pressure on legislators to expand Medicaid there. But he can’t find anyone willing to help fund that.

It didn’t become by any means an ideal world on January 1st. It’s better, and that’s worth celebrating. But we’ve got to keep going.

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