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Wendell Potter on the President's Plan
W.S. Merwin, photo by Robin Holland
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March 5, 2010

As Democrats in Congress and the President move forward on health care reform, giant health insurance companies are back in the news, and they aren't winning many friends. Some of America's largest insurers caused an uproar recently by raising individual premiums, in some cases by as much as 39%. The move seemed so tone-deaf, that two FOX BUSINESS reporters scolded a WellPoint executive for the bad timing. Host Charles Payne asked, "Didn't someone though, wasn't there a committee that said listen, let's take Wall Street's lead, do the minimum we can, wait for this to blow over and maybe a year from now try to hike rates?" Co-host Stu Varney continued, "You handed the politicians red meat at a time when health care is being discussed. You gave it to them!"

To get an inside look at what health insurance companies might be thinking as health care reform gains momentum, Bill Moyers turns again to former insurance insider Wendell Potter. When Potter first sat down with Bill Moyers on the JOURNAL, his exposé of insurance industry media practices sent ripples through the health care debate. He returns during the Democrat's final push for comprehensive health care reform to discuss the insurance industry's strategy, what's good and bad about the bill, and why he'd vote for it if he were in Congress.

Potter believes that profits drove the most recent rate increases, "Well, these companies are for-profit companies, and they think first and foremost about their shareholders. That's the first stakeholder that they consider. And they know that they have to meet those expectations or their stock prices will suffer."

As for the seemingly bad timing, Potter thinks the insurance companies aren't concerned, knowing that they've invested millions of dollars on lobbying and campaign contributions to members of Congress. With that kind of influence, says Potter, "They do this because they know they can. And they're willing to take whatever lumps they might take in the public and before Congress."

Ultimately, according to Potter, the health insurance companies will continue to be profitable whether or not the reform passes — by requiring people to buy health insurance, the government is delivering insurers millions of new customers — but that's not a reason to vote against the bill, "It will bring a lot of people into coverage. And it will help people be able to afford coverage. 45,000 people die every year in this country because they don't have coverage. We can't go on another year and let 45,000 of our people die, just because of that."

The President's Plan

President Obama based his plan on the Senate's version of the health care bill. The Kaiser Family Foundation has been carefully tracking all the health care plans. To find out the specific differences between the House, Senate and President Obama's plans, read their side-by-side comparisons.

Wendell Potter
Photo by Robin Holland
Wendell Potter has served since May 2009 as the Center for Media and Democracy's senior fellow on health care in Madison, Wisconsin. After a 20-year career as a corporate public relations executive, in 2008 he left his job as head of communications for one of the nation's largest health insurers, CIGNA, to try his hand at helping socially responsible organizations — including those advocating for meaningful health care reform — achieve their goals.

Based in Philadelphia, Potter provides strategic communications counsel and planning services as an independent consultant. He also speaks out on both the need for a fundamental overhaul of the American health care system and on the dangers to American democracy and society of the decline of the media as watchdog, which has contributed to the growing and increasingly unchecked influence of corporate PR.

Potter held a variety of positions at CIGNA Corporation over 15 years, serving most recently as head of corporate communications and as the company's chief corporate spokesman.

Prior to joining CIGNA, Potter headed communications at Humana Inc., another large for-profit health insurer and was director of public relations and advertising for The Baptist Health System of East Tennessee. He also has been a partner in an Atlanta public relations firm, a press secretary to a Democratic nominee for governor of Tennessee and a lobbyist in Washington for the organizers of the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville, TN.

Wendell Potter first worked as a journalist. When fresh out of college, he worked for Scripps-Howard's afternoon paper in Memphis. He wrote about Memphis businesses and local government before being sent to Nashville to cover the governor's office and state legislature. Two years later he was promoted to the Scripps-Howard News Bureau in Washington where he covered Congress, the White House and the Supreme Court and wrote a weekly political column.

Wendell Potter is a native of Tennessee and a graduate of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville where he received a B.A. in communications and did postgraduate work in journalism and public relations. He holds an APR, which means he is accredited in public relations by the Public Relations Society of America, and is still a dues-paying member of the Society of Professional Journalists and the National Press Club in Washington.

Guest photos by Robin Holland.

Related Media:
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With almost 20 years inside the health insurance industry, Wendell Potter saw for-profit insurers hijack our health care system and put profits before patients. Now, he speaks with Bill Moyers about how those companies are standing in the way of health care reform. (July 10, 2009)

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A Bill Moyers essay. (October 9, 2009)

Rachel CarsonFRONTLINE: "Sick Around the World"
FRONTLINE travels to five other wealthy capitalist democracies — Great Britain, Japan, Germany, Taiwan, and Switzerland — to find out how they provide health care to all of their citizens for a fraction of the cost of the U.S. system.

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Explore highlights on the debate over health care reform and get tools to track industry lobbying and campaign dollars.
References and Reading:
Also This Week:
Bill Moyers sits down with former insurance executive turned public health advocate Wendell Potter, who argues that all is not lost in the healthcare bill and details what he likes about the legislation.

Single-payer advocate Marcia Angell on why she thinks the debate over reform needs a fresh look at the economics and delivery of the care promised in the bill.

Online tools for side-by-side comparison of the reform proposals, cost calculators and expert analysis of political speech and the bi-partisan summit.

Explore highlights on the debate over health care reform and get tools to track industry lobbying and campaign dollars.

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