Originally published June 25, 2009.
'When you have a nice job in Liberty Place and you have a nice home on the Main Line, you can lose perspective on how most of America lives," Wendell Potter told me.
Potter was Cigna Corp.'s top spokesman, the corporate mouthpiece for one of the biggest U.S. medical insurers, a key defender of for-profit health care, before he retired at 56 last year.
But yesterday, Potter went to Washington as a corporate critic, a consultant to the Center for Media and Democracy, a nonprofit public-relations watchdog group based in Madison, Wis., to tell the Senate Commerce Committee "how special interests manipulate public opinion on health-care reform."
As he waited for Sen. Jay Rockefeller, (D., W. Va.), chairman of the committee, Potter told me by phone how he'd reversed.
"I had a pretty fortunate career in terms of being able to advance up the corporate ladder and have a PR job that was a pretty good-paying job," he said. "I got very accustomed to living the lifestyle of a corporate executive."
It wasn't enough. Two years ago, visiting the family home in Kingsport, Tenn., Potter told me he picked up the Kingsport Times-News, where he'd worked as a young reporter before he went into public relations.
"I saw there was a 'Health- care Expedition' going up to Wise, Va., which is a few miles away. That's a coal-mining area." Potter drove up for a look.
This is what he saw: "Hundreds of people in a county fairground, lined up, in the rain, to get free medical care - that was being provided in the animal stalls."
Potter couldn't square his work speaking for Cigna, and enriching himself, his bosses, and the company's investors, by excluding or minimizing payments, with those needy people in the rain. Nor with his defense of the for-profit system that he now says kept them there.
"It took that trip back home to get my bearings," Potter now says. "To remember where I came from. To see what was happening to people who didn't have insurance. I knew I had to make a change."
To what? He wasn't sure. He didn't talk to Cigna CEO Edward Hanway (who announced his retirement yesterday) or other bosses about it.
He sold his suburban home and moved to Philadelphia. He turned to "spiritual advisers" such as the Rev. William Golderer, then-pastor of Broad Street Ministries (now of Arch Street Presbyterian Church), to "discern."
That trail led to Washington.
"I'm not doing this because I have an ax to grind with Cigna," Potter told me. "I am not a Cigna whistle-blower. I have many friends there. Many of us have always felt that we were doing the right thing, helping people who had insurance.
"The problem is that most of us can't see the forest for the trees.
"It's the system. Cigna is part of a system that is not functional, that does not serve the needs of the American people.
"There needs to be a real government reform. I saw how the industry is working behind the scenes to kill reform. It wants the status quo. It managed to do that back in 1993 and 1994. It wants to do it again."
For-profit insurers "have to focus on maximizing shareholder value," Potter said. "Decisions are made with the knowledge that Wall Street is watching. Investors will punish a company very severely if the medical-loss ratio is going in the wrong direction."
At the hearing, Potter told the senators how he'd worked on industry campaigns to make the "uninsured problem" look less ugly. Maybe some people don't want insurance. Or poor foreigners will rip off U.S. taxpayers.
"The industry and its backers are using fear tactics to tar a transparent and accountable health-care option as 'government-run health care,' " Potter told the senators. "But what we have today is Wall Street-run health care that has proved itself an unworthy partner to doctors, hospitals," and patients.
Can we trust an old PR man's conversion? Some of the senators pointed out that Potter wasn't pitching solutions, or explaining how, if we refuse to fund today's Medicare and Medicaid liabilities, we can afford more care.
Rockefeller believes. "You're better than Russell Crowe in The Insider," he told Potter at hearing's end.
The other side
A former Cigna spokesman backs a public health insurance proposal. PhillyDeals, C3.