Author Wendell Potter

Corporate watchdog and Deadly Spin author discusses his struggle with his whistleblower status and describes the post-healthcare-reform industry spin.

Following a 20-year career as a corporate PR exec, Wendell Potter left his position with one of the largest health insurers in the U.S. and became an outspoken critic of the industry. He's currently a senior analyst at The Center for Public Integrity and senior fellow on health care for the Center for Media and Democracy. In his exposé of health insurers, Deadly Spin, he gives a stark warning on the impact of the "corporate spin." Potter began his career as a reporter in his native Tennessee and was previously a partner in an Atlanta PR firm.


Tavis: Wendell Potter is the former head of communications for the health insurance giant, Cigna, who blew the whistle on deceptive health insurance practices. He is now a senior fellow at the Center for Media and Democracy and author of the new text “Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR is Killing Healthcare and Deceiving Americans.” Wendell Potter, good to have you on this program, sir.
Wendell Potter: Thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: You don’t hold back in the book, and you are brutally honest. Let me go straight to the first page of the text and read just two sentences.
“About 45,000 people die in America every year because they have no health insurance. I am partly responsible for some of the deaths making up that shameful statistic.”
Potter: That’s right.
Tavis: That’s how the book opens.
Potter: It is, and I wanted to make sure that people understood that we’re talking about spin that is really deadly here. We’re talking about human lives, and people are dying every year because they don’t have access to appropriate healthcare because they don’t have insurance coverage.
Tavis: Everybody spins, with all due respect; that’s what corporations pay you guys to do, to spin the message of the corporation. I think we understand that, and to some level, obviously, we accept that. But why do you say the spin is deadly? That’s a serious allegation.
Potter: It is, because what we have now is an insurance system that is dominated by big, for-profit insurance companies. Their first allegiance is to Wall Street, to their investors, and they do things to satisfy Wall Street, to make sure that they’re making an adequate profit to satisfy those investors.
Those practices, those things they engage in, are really causing more and more people to be uninsured and more people being underinsured, and this is resulting directly in people losing their lives. It is deadly.
Tavis: Speaking of losing their lives, is there any case that disrupted your spirit more than the case of Nataline –
Potter: Nataline Sarkisyan.
Tavis: Sarkisyan. I remember the story. For those who don’t remember it or didn’t hear about it, I’ll let you tell the story and then the audience will understand why I asked whether or not that was the most disruptive to your spirit of anything you had to spin.
Potter: And it was, it was very disruptive. It was the case that made me decide that I was definitely in the wrong line of business and I left my job within weeks after this.
Nataline Sarkisyan is a young woman who was 17 years old. She lived in Los Angeles; her doctors said she needed to have a liver transplant. She had had leukemia a few years earlier; it came back. The doctors in Philadelphia – actually, in Pittsburgh, where Cigna’s transplant offices are located, said no, she was not going to be authorized to be covered for a transplant, even though her benefit plan said that they would be covered.
But her doctors at UCLA said that if she got this transplant that she had a 65 percent chance of living at least five years, and maybe longer. But a doctor 2,000 miles away working for the big corporation, just like I was, said that in his opinion it was not – it was going to be experimental, so he wouldn’t pay for it.
Tavis: And?
Potter: And regrettably, she died. The reality is that the family was able to get so much public attention focused on this case that they eventually got Cigna to change its mind and because Cigna didn’t like the PR black eye it was getting, and it did, but the problem was that the decision to cover it came just hours before she died. Her health had deteriorated so much during this time that they were waiting for a (unintelligible).
Tavis: So Cigna finally gets around to saying, “Okay, we’re going to cover this.”
Potter: Right, that’s right.
Tavis: And she’s dead, literally.
Potter: Yeah, she dies within hours after that.
Tavis: Hours later.
Potter: Hours later. It was devastating to me, and to her family, too.
Tavis: Take me inside the corporation. What happens when an insurance company, because there’s so many of these stories – I recall talking to Michael Moore before his movie, “Sicko,” came out.
Potter: Yeah.
Tavis: He was sharing some stories about how people were running scared, knowing that the film was about to come. What happens inside of a health insurer when they have a story like Nataline’s facing them? What happens inside the boardroom?
Potter: Well, we call it a high-profile case. Whenever someone – whenever we get a call from the media, for example, about someone who’s in a situation like this, we elevate it to what we call high-profile status. Usually we’ll let the CEO know about it. In this case, we absolutely did, and I would convene a conference call of people to discuss this and I would make sure people knew the PR consequences of continuing with a certain denial.
It gets a lot of attention within the corporation, and often, the powers that be will decide it’s more important to cover something that they’ve denied rather than to have a story go on. Sometimes I would be able to kill a story, to keep it from being in print or on the air at all just by bringing these to the top executives in the company.
Tavis: Is the CEO the person who ultimately decides whether we’re going to go left or go right when you get to a high-profile case?
Potter: If it’s a case like this, yes, it is decided at the very top level. So my advice to anyone who is in a situation like this is to be a squeaky wheel, like the Sarkisyan family was. Unfortunately for them, it came too late, but the louder you can be, the more attention you can get focused on your case, the more success you’ll have and the more assurance that the CEO is going to get personally involved.
Tavis: You were speaking out about this, of course, all throughout this healthcare debate and it’s still going on, so we’ll come back to this federal judge’s decision just days ago in a moment, but what is – let me rephrase that – what part of the spin that we have been getting and continue to get from the insurance industry, healthcare insurance industry, should the American people be most suspect of?
Potter: Well, they should be skeptical of anything that comes from the insurance industry or their allies in terms of how they’re describing this healthcare reform legislation. We hear all the time that this is a government takeover of the healthcare system. People need to know that that is a phrase that came straight out of people like me who work for the insurance industry.
We wanted people to be afraid of more government involvement in their healthcare system. We need that kind of involvement, but they don’t want it to be. So be skeptical, and be skeptical of phrases that you hear like “This legislation creates death panels.” That, too, is created by people who are purposely misleading people.
There was no such thing in this legislation. The death panels do exist in our current system and they exist inside these big, corporate-owned insurance companies, because like in the Nataline Sarkisyan case, a doctor was standing between Nataline and her doctors and was calling the shots about the care that she would get because she otherwise couldn’t afford to get that transplant.
Tavis: Unless people think you’re on the Obama payroll, you have been very open about the fact that you think that they made a mistake by not including the public option.
Potter: Oh, I do. I think that – I said when I was testifying before Congress last year that if Congress passed a bill that included a requirement that we have to buy insurance from insurance companies but we don’t have a public option to choose from, they might as well call their bill the health insurance industry profit protection and enhancement act, and in many ways it is. (Laughter)
Because it will assure that they get a lot of revenue – billions of dollars in new revenue. It does a lot of things. I’m not condemning the bill wholesale because it does a lot of things for consumers, but it also gives these insurance companies a new lease on life for sure.
Tavis: To your point now, and I’m no expert, as you are, on these issues, but it just seemed pretty obvious to me that when this deal was announced in Washington, the deal announced that we were going to have some healthcare legislation that the industry was going to get behind that was going to get through Congress, I remember that day, as you do, the stock, the healthcare industry stock jumped.
Potter: Yes, it did.
Tavis: It jumped really, really high that day.
Potter: Right.
Tavis: I said to myself then – I’m not the smartest guy, but I’m like, “You know what? If their stock is jumping that high and they’re celebrating this, then there must be something about this so-called reform that they really like and that they know that we don’t.”
Potter: Oh, yes. Oh, yeah, they helped shape that legislation. They got what they wanted out of it. There’s some things they don’t like about it that they hope that the Republican House will be able to try to strip out when the Republicans take over the House of Representatives in January.
But they like a lot about this. They love that part that is being challenged in the courts about the individual mandate that requires us all to buy products from them. That will guarantee that they get billions of dollars in revenue over the next several years.
Tavis: It’s in the court system, as you mentioned, right now, but when an issue of this importance to the industry is now caught up in the court system, what does the industry do now in terms of spin and message?
Potter: Well, they’re already spinning. Soon after that, the most recent decision was from – well, there have been a couple; there have been several, actually. But right after this Virginia judge said in his view that part of the bill was unconstitutional –
Tavis: You can’t mandate people to have insurance.
Potter: You can’t mandate – exactly.
Tavis: Right.
Potter: The spin went into overdrive. They were saying in public comments that if you take that out of this legislation, then healthcare costs will skyrocket. So that’s the spin you’re going to be hearing from now on, because they want that. They’re in a dilemma, because they helped elect Republicans to Congress, but now these Republicans are going too far and they’re very worried about this.
Tavis: What happens to a whistleblower like you when you come out saying what you’ve been saying in the media and in this new book?
Potter: Well, you do this knowing that you’re putting yourself at risk and you’re putting your family at risk, and I went into this with eyes wide open that that could happen to me. But I’ve not had that kind of attack on me. I think because the industry knows that what I’m doing, what I’m saying is the truth, and they know I worked for the industry, had a very high profile in the industry, I worked with the media all the time, so I’ve always been able to speak the truth, and they have a hard time attacking me, or at least my credibility.
It may yet come, but so far – in fact, I encourage more people to get beyond their fear, if they feel like they’re in a job in which they don’t feel it’s the right job, if they need to make a change and they’re worried about it, listen to your heart, listen to your conscience.
Tavis: I would assume, though, with all due respect, you must have a healthy savings account, because it ain’t like they’re going to call you for a job tomorrow.
Potter: That’s true. I knew going into this that I was never going to work in corporate America again. I had enough money – I’m not a rich man by any means, but I had enough money saved that I didn’t think I’d have to be pushing a broom right away after doing this, and I had a few months of money saved up.
But it wasn’t the money for me, quite frankly. It was I needed to do the right thing.
Tavis: I’m glad you did, as I’m sure others will be when they read the book. The new book is called “Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR is Killing Healthcare and Deceiving Americans.” His name, Wendell Potter. Mr. Potter, thank you for your courage. I appreciate it.
Potter: Thank you, I appreciate you. Thank you.
Tavis: Good to have you on.

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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm