Oct 1 2009

Ex-Flak Sees Industry Script in Town Hall Attacks

Interview with Wendell Potter

Wendell Potter--Photo Credit: Center for Media and Democracy

Wendell Potter–Photo Credit: Center for Media and Democracy

Where has the investigative reporting been on the organizing behind attacks on healthcare reform at the “town halls” members of Congress have been holding?

Wendell Potter sees private health insurance industry as involved in the situation—and he should know. Until last year, Potter was head of corporate communications at CIGNA, one of the nation’s largest for-profit health insurance companies. Before that, he headed communications at Humana, another huge for-profit health insurer. Potter started as a reporter for the Memphis Press-Scimitar and worked for the Scripps-Howard bureau in Washington before going into PR. In doing PR for Humana and CIGNA, he largely “dealt with reporters who were willing to take a statement and be done with it.”

In his 15 years at CIGNA, Potter helped spearhead the healthcare industry’s attempt to discredit Michael Moore’s film Sicko and was involved in industry moves to undermine earlier efforts at healthcare reform. Potter said the industry’s Sicko strategy sought to categorize Moore as “an entertainer…from Hollywood.” And the industry “planted the notions” that the universal healthcare programs in other nations documented in Sicko as providing people with better access and care result instead in “rationing” of care and putting “government bureaucrats” between people and their doctors. The words “government-run” were to be stressed in a pejorative light.

“It’s pretty much the same strategy today,” said Potter, who still resides in Philadelphia, where CIGNA is based.

He decided to leave the industry after taking a trip to visit relatives in Tennessee, where he went to a health fair and saw hundreds of people being treated by volunteer doctors, nurses, dentists and other caregivers. At that moment, Potter realized the desperate situation of many Americans when it comes to healthcare.

A few weeks later, on a corporate jet, sitting in a “luxurious chair” and eating lunch with “gold-plated flatware” from a “gold-rimmed plate,” he thought about the folks he had seen who had no “idea that this is the way insurance executives lived and how premium dollars were being spent.”

Potter had begun his career as a newspaper reporter and concluded that “much of what I was doing [as a PR man] was just the opposite of what I was trying to do as a journalist.” He’s now a whistleblower, a fellow at the Center for Media and Democracy.

Potter sees the hand of the health insurance industry at the public meetings. “You’d never be able to trace it directly—unless there are leaks or a document or memo gets out. The industry works in very devious ways…through big PR firms and by setting up front groups and working with conservative pundits and quasi-journalists to influence people to carry the industry’s message.”

“It’s the same strategy of fear-mongering that the industry has been using for years,” he said. “The central element is to scare people away from real reform.”

The industry, petrified by the possibility of the nation moving towards a single-payer government nonprofit healthcare program, is now “trying to turn public opinion against the public option,” said Potter. And when members of Congress at the public meetings “hear that constituents are opposed to the public option, it makes it more difficult for them—even members who know it is the right thing—to support it.”

There’s been some media sniffing at the issue. An article in the New York Times (8/10/09) began: “Spontaneous or contrived, the shouting, shoving and other shenanigans at lawmakers’ town-hall-style meetings point to one probable outcome: the demise of bipartisan healthcare negotiations.” But there was no follow-up on how the meetings might be “contrived.” The Wall Street Journal (8/5/09) reported: “The health-insurance industry said Tuesday it is launching an effort to send insurance company employees to public meetings nationwide this month to rebut increasing criticism of the industry from the White House and top Democrats.”

And Greg Sargent reported on Who Runs Gov (8/4/09), a website of the Washington Post, that Conservatives for Patients’ Rights “is now publicly taking credit for helping gin up the sometimes-rowdy outbursts targeting House Dems at town hall meetings around the country, raising questions about their spontaneity. CPR is the group headed by controversial former hospitals exec Rick Scott.” Controversial indeed: Scott headed the Columbia/HCA healthcare company when it was overbilling state and federal health plans, for which the firm was fined $1.7 billion.

Media coverage overall, though, has been “abysmal,” said Potter. “We’re not seeing very much investigative reporting on how people are being influenced.”

Karl Grossman, a FAIR associate, has taught a course in investigative reporting for 30 years as a professor of journalism at the SUNY Old Westbury