Whistleblower says insurers will try to undermine single-payer

February 26, 2011

By Mell Huff

Wendell Potter alleges the health insurance industry did everything in its power to discredit the movie “SICKO”

Vermonters should be prepared for a campaign by health insurance companies to undermine public support for single-payer health care, an industry whistleblower declared at a Statehouse hearing Thursday.

Wendell Potter, who until 2008 was a public relations executive for CIGNA, said he witnessed such a campaign in 2007, when industry pollsters reported for the first time that a majority of Americans felt the government should play a more direct role in health care.

Industry leaders feared that the public would begin demanding the kind of comprehensive reform now being considered in Vermont, Potter said, and their fear was compounded by the release of Michael Moore’s documentary “SICKO.”

Potter told lawmakers and health care reform advocates at the Statehouse that as an industry insider at CIGNA he observed the orchestration of an extraordinary clandestine effort to discredit Moore’s film and the single-payer health care model it promoted.

 In the spring of 2007, Potter took part in a secret meeting with other major insurance companies at CIGNA’s corporate headquarters in Philadelphia. In addition to an update from the pollsters, the meeting included presentations by an industry trade group — America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) and a huge communications firm, APCO Worldwide, he said. The reason for the secrecy was to conceal the insurers’ alarm about Moore’s film and the shift in public opinion, according to Potter.

AHIP and APCO Worldwide presented the executives with a 23-page strategic plan called “Ensuring Accurate Perceptions of the Health Insurance Industry,” which Potter said was designed to neutralize the effects of Moore’s film.

Potter read from a copy of the “playbook” for how to control the message in a crucial dispute. The strategic plan advised:

“Reframe the debate: Mount campaign against a government-run health care system”
“Define the health insurance industry as part of the solution”
“Develop talking points …”
“Highlight horror stories of government run systems”
“Create an ad that would show Democrats’ likely response to a single-payer proposal; float the ad on the Internet and encourage conservatives to donate money to the allied organizations to support running the ad”
“Produce vignettes of victims of single-payer systems; distribute it on websites via conservative bloggers and YouTube.”
Audiences were targeted, he said, and “free market allies” identified — Health Care America, the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and other ideological sympathizers who “will have a vested interest in critiquing single-payer health care.” Unlikely allies, such as medical specialty groups, were also identified.

Given the extraordinary effort that the industry’s leaders invested into discrediting “SICKO,” Potter said single-payer supporters should expect that insurers are certainly aware of what is going on in Vermont. “They have probably already developed a much more comprehensive plan than this one to try to derail what’s going on here in Montpelier,” Potter said. “I have no doubt about it. They do not want you to succeed.

“You will not even be aware they’re behind it,” he added. “The industry’s communications strategists will want the campaign to be perceived as a grassroots movement arising to oppose lawmakers in favor of a single-payer plan.”

Sen. Richard McCormack, D-Windsor, remarking on the uniformity of the rhetoric of right-wing talk-show hosts, asked if it was coordinated.

“Absolutely,” Potter replied. Communications strategists give “messaging” to talk show producers, and lobbyists give talking points to friendly members of Congress and the media.

They spend large sums testing words with focus groups, and they’re experts at message discipline,” he observed. He noted that the phrase, “government takeover of health care” featured prominently in the 2007 SiCKO campaign. Then last year in the health care reform vote, almost every Republican who spoke about the bill on the House floor used the same phrase, Potter noted.

A key element of the strategy is to develop a simple message and get as many people as possible to use the same words over and over again. With enough repetition, some people will come to believe even assertions that are not true, he said. He cited the example of “death panels.”

Potter predicted that in Vermont, the health insurance industry’s strategy would include trying to influence the news media, and getting people to write op-eds and letters to the editor, to blog and to call into radio programs. “It will be the perception of a grassroots organization, but it will be organized behind the scenes by the insurance industry,” he said.

“They go to great lengths to launder money to avoid detection,” Potter said, tracing the money trail. A health insurance company will give a portion of a policy holder’s premium to AHIP, the trade group, which hires a public relations firm like APCO Worldwide to set up front groups like Health Care America, leaving no trace of insurance company involvement in the fake grassroots organizations, he said. And because it’s not mentioned on either AHIP’s or APCO’s website, he said, no one — except for people at the two companies — knows there’s a relationship between them.

Potter said you can find out some information about a “grassroots” nonprofit from its federal 990 form. You can also call the person listed as the media contact on the nonprofit’s website and ask where his or her office location is.

If the media contact for Health Care America is honest, Potter said, he will tell you that he’s sitting at his desk at APCO Worldwide, because he’s not — and never was — an employee of Health Care America: Health Care America and organizations like it exist only on paper.

Potter once tried to find the office listed on Health Care America’s 990 form.

“It’s one of these virtual office settings where people can pay money to have a real street address. They don’t have an office there, but they can use that address,” he said, “and if they want to have a meeting there, they can pay to rent a conference room. If you check to see how many people are at this address, you usually will see that there are dozens of people that share that same address.”

Potter predicted that next year — an election year — the health insurance industry’s political strategy will be to try to change the governor and the makeup of the legislature in Vermont, just as last year it tried to change the makeup of Congress. “They were successful in flipping the House of Representatives and reducing the Democratic majority in the Senate,” he observed.

“It’s going to be important to find out who’s behind the money that’s coming in to influence Vermont,” he said. “They will spend an enormous amount of money to influence the elections in 2012 here. There’ll be political advertising for candidates that are willing to deliver the industry’s messaging, and there will be negative campaigns against lawmakers who vote for single-payer legislation.”

Potter noted that the health insurance industry funneled $86 million in one year through the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to influence the health care reform debate. The U.S. Chamber and Business Roundtable are long-term allies of the health insurance industry, he said: The chief executive officers of Aetna, CIGNA, WellPoint and Humana are Business Roundtable members.

Shortly after the campaign against SiCKO was launched, Potter began working on a white paper whose purpose was to downplay the problem of the country’s uninsured. (They now number 51 million.) That summer he took a trip to Tennessee to visit relatives, and while he was there, he had an experience that turned the industry’s statistical abstractions into flesh-and-blood reality.

He was listening to the radio when he heard about a health care “expedition” in a nearby town. It was run by Remote Area Medical, a relief organization that flies doctors and other health care volunteers to under-served areas to provide medical care. (Originally they flew to Africa and the Amazon, but now 65 percent of RAM’s expeditions are to counties in this country, Potter said.)

The next morning, Potter grabbed his camera, borrowed his father’s car and drove to the fairgrounds where the expedition was being held. He was stunned by what he saw: people — some from as far away as Ohio — standing in soaking rain in lines that stretched out of sight; people being treated in open tents and animal stalls. They could have been people he grew up with. Most of them had jobs, but either their employers didn’t provide health insurance or else their plans had high deductibles.

Potter had become increasingly uncomfortable as he realized that insurance companies were trying to move people like these into high-deductible plans. Some policy-holders couldn’t afford to see a doctor or buy medications after paying their insurance premium.

One company in Maine, Potter said, is selling a plan with a $30,000 deductible. “That is where the insurance industry wants to take us all. They make money hand over fist when they can get us into these plans. Seeing what I saw was one of the factors that made me decide to quit my job.”

Potter says he’s not advocating a single-payer versus a public option. His goal is to make Vermonters aware of the propaganda campaign that will be unleashed on them, if not this year, next year.

“This is going to be a multi-year project for you all, and this is going to give the insurance industry and its allies a lot of opportunities to try to turn public opinion against what you’re trying to do,” he said.

“It’s almost stunning what you’re trying to do,” he added. You were the first to abolish slavery. Maybe you can be the first to abolish insurance.”

Potter’s visit was sponsored by Vermont Health Care for All, UVM United Academics, United Professions AFT Vermont, the AFL-CIO and Vermont Physicians for a National Health Program.