A hardy crowd of 100 braved slick roads and a snowstorm Monday night, several driving from as far away as Milwaukee and Dodgeville, to hear Wendell Potter talk about his former job as a public relations flack for one of the biggest for-profit health insurance companies in the world.
His new book “Deadly Spin” gives a riveting insider’s account of some of the unsavory practices that eventually left him, he said, “unable to look at myself in the mirror.” He shared some of those war stories Monday night, but many at the Goodman Community Center, familiar faces from single-payer rallies, were also eager to hear his take on what will happen next to health care reform. “Here’s the reality,” he tells them. “It ain’t going to be repealed.”
This week’s vote to repeal the law in the Republican-controlled House is a “smoke screen” to mask a more sinister threat, he says: that critics will peel away the best parts of the bill rather than kill it outright.
They’ll go after the clause that allows parents to cover their children until they are 26, he warned the crowd. They’ll try to pump up the share of premiums for-profit companies can put into overhead instead of patient care. They’ll try to discriminate against the elderly. They’ll push for exemptions and waivers. And they’ll blast reform as a “one-size-fits-all” failure while demanding “greater flexibility to meet the needs of Americans” because this is the kind of simplistic jargon politicians fall for. “It may not surprise you that many lawmakers are not very smart,” Potter says, getting a laugh.
Since leaving CIGNA in 2008, Potter has made it his mission to try to educate the public on just how powerful the industry propaganda he used to help spin can be. Two years ago, in a lengthy Q and A, he told me he feared reform would be crushed by this PR machine. I caught up to him again shortly after the mid-term elections, when Republicans had tossed out many of the politicians who had supported an overhaul. Potter, usually soft-spoken, was angry. Anybody who knows anything about the decades-long battle to pass health reform in America, described in fascinating detail in his book, should have realized what was coming and been better prepared, he says.
“We lost the messaging battle, and that baffles me,” he says. “In fact, I’m pretty disgusted. I just don’t get it. A lot of members of Congress put their political fates on the line. Some of them were pretty courageous. I will tell you we didn’t see any evidence of leadership or a messaging strategy during the campaigning. It didn’t come from the White House. It didn’t come from anywhere. It was nonexistent. If you don’t have that, and you have the other side so well-organized and so well-financed, you get your ass kicked.”
Much of “Deadly Spin” details just how the industry managed to kick it.
Potter claims President Barack Obama and the pro reformers were so naive that they fell for what he calls the industry’s “charm offensive,” a point he repeated Monday night when he told the audience the industry “was playing the president like a Stradivarius.” Even as industry executives claimed to be on board, he says, they were funneling millions of dollars to front groups spreading “deceptions and lies.” The tea party movement, he claims, is one result.
Potter’s book, a revealing description of some of the most secret strategies corporate PR honchos have used for decades to influence the public and policy on everything from tobacco to health reform, should be required reading for these snookered folks. But it also is plenty interesting and informative for everyone else, even for those who disagree with Potter. You will learn how the script and the playbook used to punch holes in reform now have been around since the days of Teddy Roosevelt. The parallels between the tactics and the hot-button language used to frighten Americans away from various incarnations of reform — “fearmongering,” Potter calls it — are fascinating.
He pulls up some historical gems. In 1961, the American Medical Association launched a campaign against early Medicare legislation, for example, called “Operation Coffee-Cup.” Across the country the wives of association members served coffee, chatted and listened to a recording of the young Ronald Reagan speaking out against — you guessed it — “socialized medicine.”
If Medicare passes, Reagan warned in language that is echoed by today’s tea party members, “behind it will come other federal programs that will invade every area of freedom as we have known it in this country, until, one day…we will awake to find that we have socialism...” and “you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children, and our children’s children, what it once was like in America when men were free.”
Potter also describes the key role he and his colleagues played in defeating efforts by Bill and Hillary Clinton to pass health care reform. “I was quite proud to be a part of the effort to make sure the Clintons’ vision of reform would never be realized,” he writes in the book.
“At the time, I was still a true believer in both the concept of managed care and the idea that the free market could work in health care if the government would just get out of the way. It never occurred to me that fearmongering and fake grass roots initiatives were anything to get worked up about, because they were being used to defeat a reform plan that I thought would be bad for the country — and for the companies that enabled me to pay my mortgage.”
By 2007 he was the top spokesman for CIGNA, one of America’s largest health insurance companies. Over a period of two years, from 2007 to 2009, Potter says insurance companies and HMOs spent $586 million, derived from customers’ premiums, in political contributions and lobbying expenses, most of it to attack health care reform. A particularly amusing but scary section in the book is devoted to the industry’s campaign against Michael Moore and his movie “Sicko,” which the health insurance industry feared could prove as influential as Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” had proven to be in changing attitudes about global warming.
Top insurance executives set up an elaborate front group whose main purpose was to discredit the movie, he writes. They held secret meetings and sent secret memos about how to soften its impact. They even flew a young man he calls a “reconnaissance agent” out to Cannes, France, to take notes in the darkened auditorium of the preview so that they could learn what they were in for as quickly as possible. He and other flacks held briefings and compiled a three-ring notebook full of talking points for how to dismiss the movie and reform as a “government takeover.” The goal,” he writes, “was to make Moore radioactive to centrist Democrats in particular.”
And then he got handed a public relations nightmare. A teenage girl from California died of leukemia in 2007 after CIGNA declined her pricey claim for a liver transplant, arguing that the surgery was “experimental.” CIGNA reversed its decision, but too late: The girl died without having had the operation. Potter says CIGNA sent a “spy” to her funeral to gather information that might be useful to the company’s efforts at damage control. That incident, along with a visit to a health fair in rural Virginia near his parents’ home, prompted Potter to start questioning what he was doing.
“It became clearer than ever that I was part of an industry that would do whatever it took to perpetuate its extraordinarily profitable existence,” he writes. “I had sold my soul.”
What he saw at that fair, he says, was a far different world than the myth created by the “spin” he had staked his career on. “I felt as if I’d stepped into a movie set or a war zone. Hundreds of people... were waiting in lines that stretched out of view.... I noticed some of those lines led to barns and cinder-block buildings with row after row of animal stalls, where doctors and nurses were treating patients.”
That experience, says Potter, a Baptist, was a sort of “divine intervention” that led him to turn his back on his former profession and become one of the country’s most outspoken critics of that world. And so his book ends up being as much a confession or memoir of an awakening as it is an account of the growth of corporate PR and the historical battle over reform.
“As I took in the scene at the Wise County Fairgrounds, I realized that the folks in those lines and animals stalls could have been my relatives or my parents’ neighbors,” he writes. “I could tell from their faces that they were people with whom I shared cultural roots, but who — for whatever reason — simply hadn’t had the good fortune to land a high-paying job and a cushy office in a Philadelphia skyscraper.”
A few months later, he quit that job. Colleagues seem to be doing what he says he would have advised them to do when he handled PR: ignoring him. They have made few public statements about his defection and reportedly have refused his invitations to discuss the issue with him in public.
He told me he expects he will never get another job in corporate America. “I’ve torched a lot of bridges,” he says. But his conscience is clear.
“Telling the truth is cathartic,” he writes in “Deadly Spin,” saying that he plans to continue to try to do everything he can to atone for his former role as a “spinmeister” for “what I consider now to be an evil system sustained on greed.”