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The Whistleblower

Wendell Potter spent more than two decades being a public voice of the insurance industry, most recently as the chief spokesperson for Cigna. But after a cathartic moment—witnessing hundreds of uninsured people turn up at a free medical event in Virginia—he threw down the company rope. He resigned, and in June, Potter testified before Congress.

What did you blow the whistle on?
On the increasingly common practice of insurance companies dumping policyholders when they get sick to increase their profits and also on their scheme to shift more and more of the financial burden of health care away from them and onto consumers—again, to increase profits.

What were your responsibilities when you worked for the insurance industry?
I headed corporate communications for CIGNA, the nation’s fourth largest health insurer, and served as the chief spokesperson for the company. One of my chief responsibilities was communicating to the media how much money the company earned on the revenues and fees it collected from customers throughout the year. I also served on numerous trade association committees and industry-funded coalitions and front groups. 

After working in the industry for more than 20 years, did you gradually become disenchanted or suddenly? What happened?
It was gradual. My disenchantment began when it became clear to me that the for-profit insurers, which now dominate the industry, were determined to eventually force all of their health plan enrollees out of their current plans and into what they refer to as “consumer-driven” plans. These are the plans that enable insurers and employers to equire enrollees to pay increasingly higher amounts out of their own pockets for care before their insurance kicks in. Shifting more of the financial burden to consumers is one of the ways insurers are able to meet the profit expectations of investors and Wall Street analysts. Insurers are under relentless pressure from Wall Street to maximize profits. Because reporters were constantly asking me detailed questions about revenues and profits, I came to understand, more than most employees, the actions insurers take on a regular basis—ranging from reducing payments to doctors to “purging” customers whose employees filed more claims than their underwriters expected—to meet or exceed Wall Street expectations. 

How did you muster the courage?
I read a lot about others who had mustered the courage to speak out, to act, when they felt led by their consciences to do so. One of the books I read was Profiles in Courage, which was written by President Kennedy. Robert Kennedy wrote in a forward to an edition of the book after the president's death that one of the president’s favorite quotes was this one by Dante: “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of moral crises maintain their neutrality.” I also sought spiritual guidance and support from my family.

Can you tell us about the complexity of the PR operation at a major insurance company?

It can be very complex. As a spokesperson, I never said or wrote anything that didn’t have the approval of executive management. Determining executive management’s point of view on a wide range of topics was a constant challenge. I also coordinated communications activities with the industry’s largest trade association. As Congress considers how to reform the health care system, it is vitally important for insurers to be in sync with each other and with their trade group. A lot also goes on behind the scenes. Insurance company PR people know their industry is held in low regard by the public, so they spend enormous amounts of time and resources lining up and feeding talking points to allies in business, the media and politics.

After having time to reflect, what were the most shocking of the practices you witnessed?
Canceling policies of individuals who get sick and jacking up the premiums of small businesses so high after a few employees become seriously ill or injured the businesses have little alternative but to stop offering coverage. Millions of men, women and children have been forced into the ranks of the uninsured as a result of these practices. 

You mentioned how companies dump the sick. Can you talk about rescissions and how they work?
People who don’t have access to employer-sponsored coverage must buy individual policies. Before being approved, they have to provide information about prior medical conditions. State and Congressional investigators have found that large insurers have paid bonuses to employees who scour the applications after policyholders file medical claims, looking for evidence that the policyholders failed—knowingly or unknowingly—to disclose everything. One investigation found that 20,000 policies had been rescinded—cancelled—by the insurers, saving the insurers $300 million. Even if the policyholder has paid premiums on time for years, he or she will be left with the responsibility of paying the entire amount of any medical bills after a policy has been rescinded.

Do you or have you worried about your personal safety?
I worried a lot before I decided to make the big leap and start speaking out. I eventually came to believe that the worry was mostly negative self-talk. In any event, I ultimately decided the risk was worth taking. I felt compelled to do the right thing, regardless of the consequences.

Do you think health care can ever be profit-driven?
The free-market system does not work in the delivery and financing of health care as it does in other sectors of the economy. At least 75 million Americans—one out of every four people—are either uninsured or underinsured largely because of the constant quest for profits by insurers and investor-owned hospitals and other health care providers. That number will continue to grow if we do not make fundamental changes to our health care system. 

Did any of the executives you worked with share any of your sympathies or concerns? Have you been met with hostility? 
I know many do, but are not willing to speak out as I have. Most of the hostility has come from ideological allies of the insurers—mostly right-wing bloggers and pundits—than from former colleagues. That’s as I expected.

Support for Obama’s health plan seems to be quickly dwindling. Does insurance industry PR have to do with that?

It has everything to do with that. 

If you had a message for Congress, what would it be?
The American people want real reform. The special interests, including the insurers, only want reform if it benefits their bottom line. Vote the way the American people want you to vote, not the special interests. Please.

You can read Wendell Potter’s blog at: http://www.prwatch.org/blog/35267 

Published: August 09, 2009
Issue: Fall 2009 Water Issue