First and foremost, I’m a journalist.
I fell in love with journalism when I was 17, thanks to one of my high school English teachers. Mrs. Stella Chambers, God rest her soul, asked me during my senior year if I’d like to be the school’s correspondent to our local newspaper.
Although I can’t recall a single dispatch I sent from Ketron High School to The Kingsport (Tennessee) Times-News, something I wrote caught the attention of the managing editor. He offered me a summer internship, straight out of high school.
Four years later, I had a communications degree from the University of Tennessee and a job as a fulltime reporter at a much bigger paper on the other end of the state, The Memphis Press-Scimitar. A year later I was covering the Tennessee legislature in Nashville. Two years after that, I was in Washington, covering Congress, the White House and the Supreme Court. At 24, I was the youngest reporter ever in Scripps-Howard’s Washington bureau.
I loved it—but not enough to turn down an offer in PR a few years later. It’s a shame, but most reporters make a lot less money than even junior PR people. That’s why there are now far more PR people than reporters in this country. That, too, is a shame.
So, as much as I hate to admit it, I left a career I loved for a bigger paycheck.
As it turned out, I was a pretty good PR guy. I became a partner in an Atlanta public relations firm soon after I turned 30. A little more than 10 years later, I was leading the PR department at Humana Inc., the big managed care company. From there I went Cigna, an even bigger insurer, where I was serving as head of corporate communications when I left in 2008 after a crisis of conscience.
The way I look at it now is that I spent 20 years as an undercover reporter inside the health insurance industry.
During that crisis of conscience, which began during a trip back home to Tennessee (and which I told Bill Moyers about on national TV), I came to grips with the fact that what I was being paid well to do was all too often the exact opposite of what I had been paid less well to do as a reporter.
Instead of trying to provide folks with an honest account of whatever it was I was writing about, as I tried to do as a reporter, on more than a few occasions during my insurance industry career I went to great lengths to obscure the whole truth. Slowly but surely, I had gotten caught up in a system in which misleading people to achieve an objective was so commonplace that no one questioned it.
After awakening to that awful truth, I left my job and eventually became active in calling for changes not only in the way health insurance companies do business but in how public relations is practiced. It was the beginning of what is now my life’s work: making amends for the harm I caused an untold number of people.
My first time out as a former insurance industry executive was before the U.S. Senate on June 24, 2009. During widely covered testimony, I disclosed how insurance companies, as part of their efforts to boost profits, were engaging in practices that had resulted in millions of Americans being forced into the ranks of the uninsured. I also described how my former colleagues and I had used PR in often-deceptive ways to defeat legislation that would have provided consumers with protections from industry abuses.
To my surprise, even President Obama heard what I had to say. He even quoted me during his remarks to a Joint Session of Congress on September 9, 2009.
“As one former insurance executive testified before Congress, insurance companies are not only encouraged to find reasons to drop the seriously ill; they are rewarded for it. All of this is in service of meeting what this former executive called, ‘Wall Street’s relentless profit expectations.’”
Since then I have testified before several other Congressional and state legislative committees, spoken at hundreds of public forums and been the subject of numerous articles in the U.S. and foreign media.
I’ve also written two books—Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR Is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans and Obamacare: What’s in It for Me? What Everyone Needs to Know About the Affordable Care Act—both published by Bloomsbury Press.
I’m also happy—and very grateful—to say that I’ve been able to return to journalism. I’m a senior analyst at the The Center for Public Integrity, one of the nation’s oldest non-partisan, nonprofit investigative news organizations, and a contributor to The Huffington Post and healthinsurance.org. My work has also appeared in a number of other publications, including Newsweek, The Nation and The Guardian.