In Health Debate, Ex-Insider Targets Insurance Industry
Wendell Potter, former chief spokesman for health insurer Cigna
Corp. (CI), describes himself in his twitter bio as a "journalist
who spent 20 years undercover as HMO PR flack, now writing all
While Potter chuckles about the line, he is serious about his
foray into the U.S. health reform debate, where he is campaigning
for a public health-plan option and, with mild delivery and tough
words, targeting what he calls "deceptive and dishonest" tactics of
a for-profit health insurance industry that's fighting such a
"They will be spending millions and millions of dollars behind
the scenes...to gut reform," he said.
Potter, who retired from Cigna in 2008 after 15 years, emerged
last month as a former industry insider, testifying before the
Senate Commerce Committee that insurers "routinely dump
policyholders who are less profitable or get sick," as companies
strive to appease Wall Street analysts and investors.
Potter said a trip two years ago to a rural health fair in Wise
County, Va., where people waited in animal stalls to receive
medical attention, sparked his epiphany about uninsured Americans
and an industry where he spent two decades.
"If you go down there you will see this from a different
perspective," said Potter, a former newspaper reporter. The
statistic about roughly 47 million uninsured Americans "loses the
meaning until you look it in the face."
Potter considers a government-sponsored health plan vital to
U.S. competitiveness and to the security of some 75 million
uninsured or underinsured Americans.
"All of those people are at risk of losing their houses, filing
for bankruptcy and being ruined financially," Potter said.
Cigna and the industry are showing restraint in responding to
Potter. He said he has heard from no one currently at Cigna, with
the exception of a friend, and neither the company nor the
industry's trade group has attacked him, although they take
exception to his views on the industry and a public plan.
"Healthcare reform is our top priority, and that's what were
focusing on," America's Health Insurance Plans spokesman Robert
"We're not taking it personally, we agree with Wendell that we
need healthcare reform, so we've been working towards that," Cigna
spokesman Christopher Curran said, noting that the industry
supports guaranteed, mandated, coverage for all Americans,
regardless of pre-existing illness, among other steps.
"With the changes we have already agreed to, we believe that the
healthcare system can be transformed without the creation of a new
government-run plan, which we believe could have a damaging impact
on healthcare cost and quality in our country," Curran said.
Potter said competition from a government plan would pressure
private insurers to cut administrative expenses and counter Wall
Street pressure that has insurers looking for ways to avoid paying
claims. He dismissed warnings about government bureaucrats making
medical decisions under a public plan, saying, "[People already]
have a corporate bureaucrat between them and their doctor."
Potter acknowledged he was well-paid by Cigna - and said the
company got its money's worth. He conceded he sometimes was
"blocking the free flow of information" as a "gatekeeper" at the
company. Potter, who earlier worked for Humana Inc. (HUM), has been
encouraged by most of the responses to his new role, and
understands the criticism from those who question his late-career
"I think many people undergo changes in life and see things
differently, and that's what happened to me," he said. Had he not
worked in the industry for so long, Potter added, "I wouldn't know
what I know now."
-By Dinah Wisenberg Brin, Dow Jones Newswires, 215-656-8285;