A change of heart: Why former CIGNA PR executive Wendell Potter, APR, is now speaking out against the health care industry
October 24, 2009
|AP Wide World Photos
Wendell Potter, APR, walks through the streets of Washington, D.C., while talking on his iPhone. He’s just met Speaker Nancy Pelosi
at a House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee hearing and has some down time between appointments. A man constantly on the go since June 24, when he first testified
before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Potter has become a whistleblower for health care industry reform.
After 20-plus years as a health care executive, the soft-spoken Potter is now leading a whirlwind life as a controversial and in-demand figure on the political talk show circuit. The former vice president of corporate communications for CIGNA Corp
. gave up his lucrative salary and the posh perks that came along with his senior-level position, knowing that he would likely never hold another job in corporate America. While he still values public relations and is a proponent of ethical practice, Potter takes issue with what he sees as “spin and flackery” in his own profession. Today, he’s advocating for honesty and transparency in health insurance companies — explaining his thoughts on how he believes the companies confuse customers and “dump the sick” to satisfy their investors.
It was a month after I had seen the movie “Sicko,”
[Michael Moore’s scathing documentary on the health care industry] that premiered in the United States in June of 2007. I went to the premiere in Sacramento and remember being very conflicted because I thought it was a good movie and quite accurate — and I knew my task was going to be to help to discredit the movie, which I didn’t want to do, but it was part of my job. And then a month later, I was visiting my relatives in Tennessee. I just picked up the hometown newspaper and I saw that this expedition was being held in Wise County, Va., which is a small community about 50 miles north of where I grew up in Kingsport, [Tenn.].
I decided to take a look at it. I was curious. I guess I was expecting something like a health fair. But what I saw was so unlike anything I had ever seen in my life — certainly in this country. When I walked through the fairground gates, I immediately saw hundreds and hundreds of people who were standing in line to get care that was being provided free to them by doctors who were volunteering their time. I had never before given as much thought as I did at that time to the people we always talk about in terms of numbers, or how many millions of people in this country don’t have insurance or how many millions are underinsured.
That brought it home to me. And most of those people had jobs. They were working. Many of them had insurance, but they couldn’t afford to pay their copayments or their deductibles to get the care they needed. So it was a vivid illustration of the problems that we have in this country that have resulted from the dysfunction in a system that’s so tightly controlled by the health insurance industry. And at that point — even though I didn’t immediately act on it — I knew that I could never in good conscience serve as a spokesman for the insurance industry.
A few months after that, I decided to leave. It took me awhile to process [what I saw] and to figure out what I would do. When I finally did leave, I didn’t have another job to go to. I just felt that I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing.
Was it difficult to do your job during those several months when moral dilemmas were weighing on your conscience?
Yes, it was very difficult. And I also served on the company’s public policy committee. So I needed to contribute to the culmination of the company’s positions on health care reform. I was having a hard time doing that and still being part of the team. I can remember having a one-on-one meeting with my boss at one point around that time, and she could sense that I was not very happy. She said, “Wendell, you don’t seem like you’re engaged.” And she was right. I was defensive, and I said, “Well, I’m trying. I’m just really busy.”
I ultimately came to the conclusion that CIGNA probably wasn’t getting its money’s worth out of me anymore. I’d been very fortunate. I had a wonderful career at CIGNA, with many promotions and many bonuses and a lot of perks along the way. But I decided to leave on my own — a voluntary departure. And I didn’t know at that time that I would eventually be a critic of the industry. I just knew initially I didn’t want to continue being a spokesman for the industry. It took me awhile to get to the point of feeling that it was imperative that I speak out.
What specifically compelled you to take action and testify in front of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation?
I was watching TV [around the time] that the president had his first health care summit at the White House in March. I was watching some of the political pundits talking about it. And it turns out that on the “Hardball with Chris Matthews” show, one of his guests was the executive vice president for the big trade association that represents health insurance companies.
And he was talking about how this time the insurance industry was going to be giving a lot of support to the president and Congress and, bringing solutions to the table, which was a term they’ve used many times — and working cooperatively this time, not like in 1993 and 1994 when they led the effort to kill the Clinton plan. And then I heard Chris Matthews say, “Boy, this is a big change. The worm has turned, the cosmos has shifted.” And I rolled my eyes, and I thought, “Oh, geez, Chris. Surely you’re saying that with tongue in cheek. You don’t really believe this, do you?”
On another program soon after that was part of what I call the industry’s PR charm — and that includes saying the things that they think the public and policymakers think they should say, or want to hear, to make people think that they really are on the side of reform advocates this time. It was a member of Congress from Tennessee, and he was using some of the same talking points that I had helped develop when I was in the industry to try to make people think that the problem of the uninsured was not really that much of a problem after all.
That’s one of the tactics that the industry has used: try to diminish the need for comprehensive reform. He said, “Well, we don’t have problems as big as a lot of people say we do. Half the people who are uninsured are that way by choice. They just decide to go naked.” And I know that’s not true. I’ve done an enormous amount of research into the problem of the uninsured. It’s a myth that the industry’s trying to perpetuate.
I was disgusted at what I was participating in and had willingly participated in for a long time. I had lost my way, I guess, from the PR ethics that were drilled into me when I was a student and in the early years of my career in public relations — that people who practice public relations adhere to a strong code of ethics. And a lot of practitioners need to be reminded of that — there is a code of ethics, and we need to be more aware of what we’re doing and how we’re conducting PR campaigns.
These campaigns have been talked about for decades with the full intent of hiding the organization that’s behind it, of hiding the funding, of hiding the tactics they use — by using front groups, by using PR people to reach out to members of Congress and lobbyists and people in the media. It’s deception, and it is, in my view, unethical conduct on the behalf of a lot of PR practitioners. It is media and it is public manipulation — it’s manipulation of people’s attitudes; it is a way to manipulate people’s thinking. It’s something that I know and have been part of, and I’m trying to talk about this so people will understand how it works and how they’re being taken advantage of.
So you’re essentially speaking out against something that you created?
Absolutely. And at times, when I’ve been speaking to groups, I’ve apologized for being part of an effort to kill reform and thereby cheating people out of a reformed health care system. I’ve apologized for getting caught up in these PR campaigns and using these tactics that led to the intended results that the industry wanted.
The industry knows from years of doing opinion research that people hold the insurance industry in low esteem, [just like with] the tobacco industry. And so what you’re seeing are PR tactics that are being carried out by the health insurance industry to influence legislation. And the same [thing] was done with the tobacco industry. They’re the exact same tactics — creation of front groups, media manipulation and message manipulation.
What has been the reaction of some of your former colleagues? Do you feel as though you’ve burned any bridges?
In a way, I knew when I decided to speak out that I would be torching bridges and would probably not have a chance — if I wanted to work in corporate America — to do that again. I didn’t expect to be called by any recruiters to work in the health insurance industry again, but I wouldn’t want to. And what I’m doing is not appreciated by a lot of sectors. But I’ve had a lot of encouragement from former colleagues, both PR colleagues and from other people I worked with in the industry over the years.
Did you have to sign a disclosure agreement with CIGNA when you left — and does it expire?
Yes. When I’m talking [about health care], I’m talking about the industry and industry practices. I don’t have a grudge against anybody at CIGNA, I don’t have an ax to grind with CIGNA. The reason I went to work with CIGNA in the first place is that I really admired the company and felt it was one of the best companies in the business. And I don’t have any reason to think otherwise. I think it is. There are many fine people there.
It is the industry and what has happened to the health care system. And in some sense, CIGNA and the other companies are victims [of] a system that they’ve helped create that is perpetuated, and it’s created almost seemingly intractable problems. The way the big companies survive and thrive is by getting bigger and more dominant and pushing competitors the other way, buying them or doing business in such a way that all their competitors just can’t stay in the business. So it’s a cutthroat, very competitive, very profit-oriented business these days.
How is public relations viewed at CIGNA? Was it a key component of business success?
Yes. No doubt about it. Certainly one of my jobs over the years was to protect and defend the company’s reputation. I was a spokesman for the company for many years and handled a lot of difficult situations. PR has played a pivotal role in the success of the company, and helps to facilitate its growth. Over the years CIGNA has had a pretty decent reputation.
I wanted to protect and defend the reputation, and to communicate. I always wanted to be a person to relate to the company’s public and to be engaged in two-way communication. That’s not easy. In fact, most of the public relations that I’ve practiced is not really relating to the public as much as it is talking to the public — and too many times misleading the public — to achieve some objective.
Do you still believe in public relations and its value? Or do you think you’ve become disenchanted with it and see it as spin or propaganda?
As I look at the profession historically, you always have people who’ve been propagandists or spin doctors or promotion people. There are a lot of good people in the industry, and a lot of good work is done by practitioners who haven’t lost their way and who understand the value of public relations as it can foster good relationships with audiences, specific publics and stakeholders. So yes, I do think that public relations can be conducted in a very honorable and ethical way, and that many people who are in the industry strongly adhere to ethics and wouldn’t think of doing some of the things I got caught up in doing.
But there is such pressure from Wall Street, from analyzing, from investors, from publicly traded companies — we’re a marketplace — to constantly turn a profit that meets Wall Street’s expectations. That becomes all-important. And the companies have their legal obligation to enhance shareholder value. So that’s where people lose their way, in my view.
What makes you so passionate about health care and speaking out?
It’s something I know. And I have jokingly said that what I’m doing now is almost like having been an undercover reporter for 20 years in the health insurance industry. I know it, and I’ve watched it and observed it. And I also have seen people who have fallen through the cracks — and they number in the millions. I’ve seen what the industry would like to do in terms of moving Americans into benefit plans that are profitable and shift more of the cost of health care onto consumers. I think what is happening is cost-shifting that cannot be sustained.
Congress does need to act. Congress needs to be aware of what the trends are and what’s going on, and reform needs to address a lot of the abuses of the health insurance industry in particular.
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