On March 5, 2009, President Obama summoned health care leaders to the White House to start talking about reforming the US health care system. At that meeting, Karen Ignagni, the health insurance industry's top lobbyist, looked the president in the eye and said the industry was "committed to health care reform." She said, "We want to work with you. We want to work with the members of Congress on a bipartisan basis here. You have our commitment. We hear the American people about what's not working. We take that seriously. You have our commitment to play, to contribute, and to help pass health care reform this year."
A few months later Wendell Potter, a soft-spoken former top health insurance public relations executive, warned the Senate committee overseeing health care reform not to believe a word Ms. Ignagni said. Rather, he urged, focus on how health insurance companies make money, not in the service but at the expense of patients. How did he know Ms. Ignagni's talking points were false? Because he was a chief author of them.
So opens the forward to a stunning expose of the frauds and smears perpetrated by the US insurance industry on the American people. "Deadly Spin" by Wendell Potter hits even harder than Michael Moore's film Sicko. By focusing on his own actions and those of his own close associates and employees at CIGNA and other insurance companies, Potter disarms almost every effort to discredit him. He does not trash his co-workers or paint the industry as inherently evil. He simply reports on his own progression from reporter to spin doctor to liar.
The lies had specific purposes. First to make a single-payer system, or ANY system based on "health care as a human right" disappear from the national bargaining table. The most important starting point for this was to smear Michael Moore's film Sicko, because it did a very effective job of pointing out the advantages to both health and budgets that would result by conversion to national health care policy.
A barrage of well-funded propaganda and "astroturfed" movements began screaming about the faked horrors of a "government takeover of healthcare." "Astroturfing" is a public relations industry term Potter defines as "creating a false grassroots movement so that a carefully crafted campaign seems like a spontaneous one." Lobbying money then greased the Republican (and some Democratic) wheels to kill "single-payer", or "Michael Moore health care" in its cradle. This campaign was successful.
The second purpose was to win a definition of "universal care" like this: "Force citizens to purchase private health care, or be deported." It was a win-win strategy for insurance companies. Scapegoat "illegal aliens" as the cause of rising health care costs (Big Lie). Then hope that a) if forcing citizens to purchase private health care prevailed, it was a bonanza for companies; or b) the "force" aspect is declared unconstitutional by court challenges (also funded in part by insurance industry fronts), reform gets killed altogether.
The latter is the preferred outcome for most insurance companies who know, says Potter, that once the principle of universality of coverage becomes law, the ultimate impossibility of providing it through private markets will eventually become apparent. Nonetheless, making everyone pay for private insurance reaps an immediate bonanza. The key is: defeat the "public option." This was a bit more difficult than killing single payer, in part because Potter had a revelation somewhat like St Paul on the road to Damascus and became a very effective witness exposing the craft, tricks and mendacity of the insurance industry.
The insurance industry is not in the business of covering health needs. It is in the business of denying claims and raising premiums on a "cherry-picked" selection of benefits. Even within the range of covered benefits, the companies do a first-class job of getting rid of enrollees they don't want: in other words, people who need insurance. Instead of being ANY part of the solution to the crisis of the uninsured, and under-insured, they were instead the leading cause of the crisis, a force that Potter finally could not bring himself to continue supporting.
Behind the insurance company lies and spin and always intensifying effort to deny claims and coverage are the executives number one priority - meeting Wall Street expectations. A single blip upwards in claims can make the Street downgrade an insurance company stock.
What changed Potters mind - a trip to Wise County, North Carolina where he heard presentations of Doctors without Borders describing the horrors of "third world medicine" where only the rich could get adequate care. He realized he was helping turn the U.S. into exactly such a world. Shortly afterwards he actually SAW Michael Moore's film, AFTER he had trashed it, and wept at the tragedies it told.
Despite the many compromises with the insurance industry, Potter supported the end result of the president's health care reform. The reform beat back about 30 percent of the insurance industry's objectives. It achieved universality; it ended caps on chronic care; it ended the donut-hole - a bonanza for pharmaceuticals; it ended denials for pre-existing conditions; and it established administrative savings and controls that will set the government on a showdown with the worst cherry-picking practices in the industry.
Read Deadly Spin. You will be well armed to fight for health care as a human right!
Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR Is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans
By Wendell Potter
Bloomsbury Press, 2010, Hardcover, 288 pp., $26
Also available in paperback, audio and Kindle editions
Photo: Chicago neighborhood meeting on health care reform, June 2009. PW photo