Those who think everything is hunky dory with our current system of healthcare in this country need to listen to Wendell Potter, a former Cigna executive turned whistleblower.
Paul Harris of The Observer talked with Potter about the appalling state of healthcare, the callousness of health industry executives, and their attempt to block meaningful reform, in this interview for the Guardian UK (h/t truthout):
Wendell Potter can remember exactly when he took the first steps on his journey to becoming a whistleblower and turning against one of the most powerful industries in America.
It was July 2007 and Potter, a senior executive at giant US healthcare firm Cigna, was visiting relatives in the poverty-ridden mountain districts of northeast Tennessee. He saw an advert in a local paper for a touring free medical clinic at a fairground just across the state border in Wise County, Virginia.
Potter, who had worked at Cigna for 15 years, decided to check it out. What he saw appalled him. Hundreds of desperate people, most without any medical insurance, descended on the clinic from out of the hills. People queued in long lines to have the most basic medical procedures carried out free of charge. Some had driven more than 200 miles from Georgia. Many were treated in the open air. Potter took pictures of patients lying on trolleys on rain-soaked pavements.
For Potter it was a dreadful realisation that healthcare in America had failed millions of poor, sick people and that he, and the industry he worked for, did not care about the human cost of their relentless search for profits. “It was over-powering. It was just more than I could possibly have imagined could be happening in America,” he told the Observer
Potter resigned shortly afterwards. Last month he testified in Congress, becoming one of the few industry executives to admit that what its critics say is true: healthcare insurance firms push up costs, buy politicians and refuse to pay out when many patients actually get sick. In chilling words he told a Senate committee: “I worked as a senior executive at health insurance companies and I saw how they confuse their customers and dump the sick: all so they can satisfy their Wall Street investors.”
Potter’s claims are at the centre of the biggest political crisis of Barack Obama’s young presidency. Obama, faced with 47 million Americans without health insurance, has put reforming the system at the top of his agenda. If he succeeds, he will have pushed through one of the greatest changes to domestic policy of any president. If he fails, his presidency could be broken before it is even a year old. Last week, in a sign of how high the stakes are, he addressed the nation in a live TV news conference. It is the sort of event usually reserved for a moment of deep national crisis, such as a terrorist attack. But Obama wanted to talk about healthcare. “This is about every family, every business and every taxpayer who continues to shoulder the burden of a problem that Washington has failed to solve for decades,” he told the nation.
Obama’s plans are now mired and the opponents of reform are winning. The Republican attack machine has cranked into gear, labelling reform as “socialist” and warning ordinary Americans that government bureaucrats, not doctors, will choose their medicines. The bill’s opponents say the huge cost can only be paid by massive tax increases on ordinary Americans and that others will have their current healthcare plans taken away. Many centrist Democratic congressmen, wary of their conservative voters, are wavering. The legislation has failed to meet Obama’s August deadline and is now delayed until after the summer recess. Many fear that this loss of momentum could kill it altogether.
To Potter that is no surprise. He has seen all this before. In his long years with Cigna he rose to be the company’s top PR executive. He had an eagle-eye view of the industry’s tactics of scuppering political efforts to get it to reform. “This is a very wealthy industry and they use PR very effectively. They manipulate public opinion and the news media and they have built up these relationships with all these politicians through campaign contributions,” Potter said.