This past year’s health discussion has been remarkable for the narrow range of ideas and opinions that have floated down to the man on the street. Journalists have sought out the same organizations and sources for their stories, offering up what has become the conventional wisdom for reform. To bring more voices into the conversation, our Excluded Voices series will intermittently feature health care experts who aren’t on the media’s A-list of sources. This is the sixth entry in the series, which is archived here. We want to offer journalists more options for their stories and encourage a deeper conversation. To that end, we’ve asked the experts featured in each post to respond to questions from Campaign Desk readers.
Historically, insurance companies haven’t topped reporters’ story idea lists. Boring, editors say. Complicated, reporters think. Of course, that’s all good for the insurers—especially health insurers that would just as soon not have snooping reporters scrutinizing their practices. As someone who has spent nearly an entire career covering insurance, I can tell you the subject is neither boring nor complicated once you delve into it. More reporters should do so if they want to explain what the various bills winding their way through Congress will mean for the public as well as for insurance companies.
One reporter who has made something of a specialty of covering insurance is Lisa Girion of the Los Angeles Times. Last week, Girion covered the testimony insurance executives gave before the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, and offered readers some insight into industry-think. The executives told Congress that they would continue to rescind coverage for people who unintentionally fail to disclose what insurers consider preexisting conditions when applying for health insurance. UnitedHealth Group, WellPoint, and Assurant Inc. have cancelled some 20,000 policies, leaving policyholders stuck with medical bills. Sometimes, companies cite even the flimsiest evidence of deceit in order to justify rescinding their coverage. And sometimes they’ve paid bonuses to staffers who help purge their books of policyholders likely to file expensive claims.
Campaign Desk sat down with Wendell Potter, a former head of corporate communications for CIGNA, the country’s fourth-largest insurer, and now a senior fellow on health care at the Center for Media and Democracy. Potter, who also spent four years at Humana, left the industry in 2008 after nearly twenty years of promoting its messages.
Trudy Lieberman: Why did you leave CIGNA?
Wendell Potter: I didn’t want to be part of another health insurance industry effort to shape reform that would benefit the industry at the expense of the public.
TL: Was there anything in particular that turned you against the industry?
WP: A couple of years ago I was in Tennessee and saw an ad for a health expedition in the nearby town of Wise, Virginia. Out of curiosity I went and was overwhelmed by what I saw. Hundreds of people were standing in line to get free medical care in animal stalls. Some had camped out the night before in the rain. It was like being in a different country. It moved me to tears. Shortly afterward I was flying in a corporate jet and realized someone’s insurance premiums were paying for me to fly that way. I knew it wasn’t long before I had to leave the industry. It was like my road to Damascus.
TL: What was so upsetting about the industry that pushed you over the edge?
WP: I was in a unique position to know how companies made money—what they had to do to satisfy shareholders—and how the industry has been able to kill reform in the past. I had been part of those efforts and didn’t want to be part of them again.
TL: How did you spin the press to the industry’s way of thinking?
WP: Over the years I developed relationships with key reporters. When you do that, you are in a much better position to influence the tone and content of stories reporters write, or at least be sure that your company’s key messages are included. It’s similar to the way special interests woo members of Congress. It’s not just money; it’s relationships.
TL: Did you ever deliberately mislead the press?
WP: I would say yes, if you mean not disclosing some pertinent information at times. PR people are always making selective disclosures of information. That’s what you do. I did not knowingly provide inaccurate information.
TL: How do reporters know what’s missing?
WP: They don’t. That’s why it’s really important to know what you’re covering.
TL: Can you give an example?