When politicians and pundits speak of "a slippery slope to socialism" and "government takeover of health care," they're using terms straight from the industry PR machine, said Wendell Potter.
He should know, he said, because he once crafted them for insurance giant Cigna Corp.
Potter, 58, quit his job as chief of corporate communications in 2008 and now spends much of his time doing radio and television interviews and consulting with the Center for Media and Democracy in Washington.
Addressing about 200 people at the Free Library of Philadelphia yesterday, Potter gave his insider's perspective on the power of the insurance industry and its well-funded battle to weaken the health-care bills in Congress.
The event, billed as a town hall, was sponsored by Physicians for a National Health Program and several other nonprofit groups that advocate for public-health reform.
For 15 years, Potter worked at Cigna headquarters in Two Liberty Place, where he helped deal with media inquiries, sometimes regarding horror stories of coverage denial. In one high-profile 2007 case, a leukemia patient died awaiting a liver transplant that Cigna initially refused to pay for.
About the same time, Potter said, he was swayed by Michael Moore's 2007 documentary, Sicko, which Potter considered well-done and accurate. "And I knew I would be asked to be part of an effort to discredit it," he said.
Soon afterward, he took a trip to a rural "health fair" in Wise, Va., where he saw thousands of people lined up to get free care provided by charity because they couldn't afford a doctor. Many of them had insurance.
He said that without reform, the trend would continue toward less coverage and higher premiums, especially through so-called consumer-directed health plans. One such plan being marketed by an insurance group would have a $20,000 deductible, Potter said.
Meanwhile, he said, industry public-relations people use linguistics and message research to find that "simple terms like government takeover will scare the bejesus out of people."
Through such slick PR and manipulation of public discourse, the industry is waging an insidious battle against serious health-care reform, he said. As evidence, he pointed to last week's widely anticipated bill from Sen. Max Baucus (D., Mont.).
"It's a gift to the insurance industry," Potter said. "They got more than they ever could have dreamed of."
The mention of Baucus quickly drew boos from the audience.
The Baucus bill has no provision for a public-option insurance plan that the government would offer to compete with private plans. Potter said such an option would likely prove more affordable for small businesses and individuals because administrative costs would be lower and the government would not need to answer to investors on Wall Street.
If a public option is put into the final bill, he said, the insurance industry will fight to make it available to as few people as possible.
The audience offered cheers of support, though one man near the back protested as Potter told an anecdote about foreign journalists who were shocked that Americans put up with such a health-care system.
"You made it that way," the man interjected. He also called it "outrageous" that Potter was not being held accountable for all the money he made working for an industry he now campaigns against.
Asked Friday to comment on some of the former executive's assertions, Cigna's new corporate communications chief, Chris Curran, issued a written statement: "At Cigna, we strongly support comprehensive health-care reform with the goal of expanding access, controlling costs, and improving the quality of care. Although we respect that there are different opinions on the solutions, we strongly disagree with the suggestion that, motivated by profits, the insurance industry has deliberately attempted to confuse or unfairly treat covered individuals."
No one rose to the defense of the industry at yesterday's meeting, though the man who had objected earlier continued to protest the way Potter had enriched himself at Cigna.
Potter took it on. "It's a valid question," he said. "I get that a lot. . . . I was a flawed person."