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The former mouthpiece for insurance giant Cigna divulges his role in misleading the public, the emotional day that led to his whistle-blowing, and what should really scare you.
In June 2007, Wendell Potter was head of corporate communications at Cigna, one of the largest health insurance companies in America, when he attended the U.S. premiere of Michael Moore’s Sicko. Potter was part of the team charged with discrediting Moore’s film, which advance word said was highly critical of the health insurance industry. Potter “sat quietly in the back and took notes,” but soon realized he had a problem. “When I saw the movie, I’ll be honest: I thought it was a real good documentary. I knew from my own studies of other healthcare systems that it was an accurate portrayal of those systems and how they are able to provide universal coverage.” Yet he was being paid by Cigna to tell people the opposite, that the film was full of lies.
Just a few weeks later, Potter, who is from Tennessee, read in a local paper about a free healthcare expedition being held in Wise County, Virginia. He decided to check it out. Walking through the fairground gates, Potter saw hundreds of people waiting in the rain while physicians attended to patients in animal stalls or on gurneys lying on the rain-soaked pavement. Tents had been pitched across the fairground lawns, creating a scene “like something that could’ve been happening on a battlefield or in a war-torn country.” Tears mixed with the rain to cloud Potter’s vision. “What I thought was: ‘Is this the United States?’ It was so remote from my reality. It just seemed impossible.”
In months and years prior, Potter had grown increasingly skeptical about his job as chief spokesman for Cigna. Though he insists he never intentionally lied to a reporter, he began to spout what he thought were either misleading or less than honest statements. Moreover, his job required him to hype new programs he felt were not in the best interest of patients or the U.S. healthcare system—particularly when it came to high-deductible, or “consumer driven” plans. He came to feel he was on the wrong side of the healthcare debate and would catch himself gazing into a mirror, wondering, “Who is this? How did this happen to me?” After Sicko and Wise County, he resigned.
Since then, Potter has become an outspoken advocate for healthcare reform. Why reform? Because of statistics like these: The U.S. healthcare system is the most expensive in the world, with each person spending more than twice as much on care than people in other industrialized nations. Yet our system ranks 29th in infant mortality, 28th in healthy life expectancy, and 37th overall. In June, Potter testified before the Senate on the devastating effects that Wall Street has on our healthcare system. The overwhelming demand to satisfy investors, Potter told the committee, is what causes insurance companies to “confuse their customers and dump the sick.”
With twenty years of industry experience—he was head of corporate communications with Humana before moving on to Cigna—Potter is an important voice in the healthcare debate. As a former insider, he is uniquely positioned to reveal the industry’s secrets, like its obsession with the medical-loss ratio—the difference between what health insurance companies pay out in claims and what it has left over—which, Potter says, causes otherwise good people in the industry to allow patients to die in order to increase profits. Yet in another sense, Potter is not so unique. We’ve seen them before, former insiders who reap huge financial benefits from an industry or system only to publicly denigrate it years later. If things were so bad, we’re left wondering, why didn’t Potter say something earlier? I recently spoke with Potter by phone.