Exclusive: Fmr. health insurance executive pleads for more corporate whistleblowers
“I was ashamed, I am ashamed of some of the things I’ve done”
Wendell Potter, the former Cigna communications chief who turned whistleblower and revealed the insurance industry’s disinformation campaign during the recent healthcare debate, is now urging other would-be whistleblowers to get off the fence and speak out.
In an extended interview with Raw Story last week, Potter had encouraging words for those in corporate America who might be party to, or a witness of, any activities that are adversely affecting their fellow citizens.
“I would tell people to take a risk, do the right thing, follow your heart and your conscience,” he said. “You’ll feel so much better.”
Potter, who is currently the senior fellow on health care at the Center for Media and Democracy, noted that he’s not making as much money as he was “by a long shot” but that he’s “much happier.”
“I just have a much richer life than I ever imagined before,” he said.
“Fear” was the biggest obstacle
He realizes that the decision to become a whisteblower is not easy and recommends first discussing the prospect with family members and a range of other people one might consider trusted advisers in their lives.
“My advice would be to talk to your family,” counseled Potter. “And talk to maybe clergy. Talk to people who can maybe be advisers in different ways. I did that.”
The most difficult hurdle was conquering his fear. He said his conscience had been hounding him long before he mustered the courage to overcome his trepidation.
“What held me back for quite awhile, and I think what holds most people back, is fear,” Potter explained. “Fear of retaliation, fear of losing everything you’ve worked for, fear of having your reputation destroyed and consequently your family’s reputation. Or [your family’s] lifestyle being changed for the worse.”
“That’s all a real possibility,” he continued. “But it gets to the point of paranoia I think.”
Potter then pointed to a conversation with a friend that he’s cited while on his current book tour for Deadly Spin, which traces his journey from health insurance insider to whistleblower.
“I remember talking to people about the worst thing that can happen,” he recounted to Raw Story.
“Finally, one friend said to me, ‘What is the worst thing that can happen?’ And I said, ‘Well, they could probably kill me.’ He said, ‘Is that likely?’ And I said, ‘Well, probably not. But I’ll probably lose my job, I’ll probably never work in corporate America again.’ He said, ‘Well, you can at least push a broom, can’t you?’ And I said, ‘Well, yeah.’”
Potter said that he finally reached the point of thinking, “It’s okay, I can lose all of this because what I’m hoping to try to accomplish is more important than the stuff that I have,” adding, “Maybe it’s unusual that people ever get to that point, but for me I couldn’t not do it.”
He thinks that many people who would like to speak out or who may even be on the verge of doing so wind up backing down because of the unknown repercussions.
“A lot of people probably are almost on the fence, but they are just afraid of going that one step over the line to make it inevitable that their lives will change,” he said. “They’re afraid it’s going to change for the worse.”
“For me,” Potter emphasized, “it has not.”
Why he finally took the leap
By 2007, Potter knew that if he remained in his job he would be a central figure in the industry’s effort to either “kill” or “shape healthcare reform” into a losing proposition for the American people.
“I had done that kind of thing in the past and I knew I would again,” he said, referring to his involvement in the campaign to defeat the Clinton administration’s efforts at healthcare reform in the 1990s.
Potter had not only grown “very skeptical” about his work at Cigna in general, but he was also uncomfortable with the industry’s push for health benefit plans that create “a much bigger group of Americans who are in the ranks of the underinsured” — those who have health insurance but don’t use it because the deductibles are too high.
Already disenchanted with his job in 2007, three specific incidents “made it inevitable that I had to leave and start doing something else.”
First, in June 2007, came his direct involvement in the health insurance industry’s smear campaign against filmmaker Michael Moore’s documentary “Sicko.”
In his book Deadly Spin, Potter describes that while he attended the first national public screening of “Sicko,” ostensibly in order take notes in preparation for media questions, he was deeply affected by the film and agreed with Moore’s argument.
“There were many times when I had to hold back tears,” Potter writes in his book. “Moore had gotten it right. If I hadn’t been with a colleague, I probably would have joined all the others in the audience in giving the movie a standing ovation, just as the people at Cannes did when it was first screened.”
Nevertheless, the industry’s campaign against “Sicko” was, with the media’s help, successful in blunting the movie’s overall impact by planting seeds of doubt that Moore had “played fast and loose with the facts.”
The following month, while visiting his parents in Kingsport, Tenn., Potter decided to stop by a Remote Area Medical free clinic that was being held at the fairgrounds in Wise County, Virginia.
Potter told Raw Story that walking through the medical fair that day and witnessing the hundreds of rain-soaked people standing in line to be treated “in barns, in animal shelters” was a life-changing event.
“I knew immediately that what I was doing was not what I was supposed to be doing,” he said.
Potter still has trouble putting the experience into words.
“I really can’t describe exactly how I felt when I walked through that gate,” he said. “I never have been able to do it quite justice. But it was almost like an electrical shock when I walked through there, almost literally like an electrical jolt. It was instantaneous.”
Then, in December of the same year, Cigna denied a liver transplant to 17-year-old Nataline Sarkisyan. After a massive, media-savvy protest by the California Nurses Association, Cigna eventually sanctioned the transplant.
But it was too late.
Just after the transplant had been approved and Potter himself had penned the statement spinning Cigna’s reversal as having had nothing to do with the negative media attention, Sarkisyan died.
Potter said that facing the media after this was the worst experience of his life.
“When that was over, I just was numb to it,” he said. “I couldn’t do it anymore, I didn’t want to do it anymore.”
He added, “You know, I was paid very well, but I could never be paid enough to keep me going to do that again.”
Potter recently apologized to Michael Moore live on national television for being involved in the health insurance industry’s specious attacks on “Sicko.”
He told Raw Story that, though difficult, it was important for him to do.
“It felt good to kind of come clean and say here’s what we really did, here’s what you need to know or should know, and here’s what the public should know,” he said.
Potter, who opens Deadly Spin by declaring that “I am partly responsible” for some of the estimated 45,000 people who die in America “every year because they have no health insurance,” does not appear to take his past actions lightly.
“I really was sincerely sorry that I was involved in deceit,” he said. “And I think that certainly was something I was involved in, there’s no doubt about it.”
He added, “I was ashamed, I am ashamed of some of the things that I’ve done in the past and I think it’s important to apologize and make amends.”
Brad Jacobson is a contributing investigative reporter for Raw Story. You can follow his Twitter feed at twitter.com/bradpjacobson.