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Potter: Why insurers are scared of a public option

Wendell Potter
Special to the Daily

To the good people of Colorado, I offer a warning and a confession.

Wendell Potter

First, the warning: As Colorado lawmakers consider the “Colorado Option” public health plan in the coming months, the insurance industry and its front groups will besiege Coloradans with a tidal wave of propaganda. You see, the Colorado option would help the people of Colorado save on medical bills, but the private insurers would lose massive profits if it came to pass. So the insurance companies will dump an unholy amount of cash in the state to wage a disinformation campaign, in an attempt to turn people against the idea.

Here’s my confession: I know this is the playbook the industry will use, because, to my great regret, I am the one who helped write it. For two decades, I was an executive at major health insurance companies, where my job was to craft propaganda designed to protect my companies’ profits, even as that meant preventing Americans from getting affordable health coverage. Eventually, I left the business because my conscience simply could not defend the work. But that doesn’t mean the industry has stopped using my old tricks. Quite the contrary.



When I headed corporate communications at Cigna, I worked with my peers at other big insurers to scare both policymakers and regular folks, to get them to believe that the sky would fall if people had one more choice for health insurance. One way we would fight reform proposed in Washington or a state capitol was to form a front group to disseminate fear-based corporate propaganda, often in the form of “studies” the industry has paid for. As Colorado weighs adding a state public option for residents to obtain health insurance, this is what Colorado can now expect.

With reform back on the agenda in D.C. and Denver, the industry has created the Partnership for America’s Health Care Future, a front group run out of a Washington PR firm. The Colorado affiliate of that front group is Colorado’s Health Care Future, and Coloradans can expect to see a blizzard of misinformation from them. Again, I know because I used to work hand in hand with the PR firms we hired to run these groups.



Just this week, the group released a study it commissioned to convince lawmakers that a Colorado option would be hazardous to the fiscal health of many of the state’s hospitals, especially rural hospitals, and the physical health of people of color. Nowhere on the group’s website will you find a mention of Colorado’s Health Care Future’s role in that study. You have to click on the study itself and scroll all the way to the bottom to find these important words the group hopes you won’t notice: “Acknowledgments: This work was supported by the Partnership for America’s Health Care Future Action.” If any other group helped pay for the study, there is no mention of it.

You will also find very little, if any, information about the methodology the PR consultant used to predict that a Colorado option could lead to the closure of these hospitals, some of which are among the most expensive facilities in the state. You also will not find other information the partnership is purposefully excluding that would show that the business practices of private insurers are perhaps the real (and biggest) threat to the state’s rural hospitals, and hospitals that serve racial and ethnic minority groups.

It is also unlikely that the front groups will share an investigative report from last year by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Kaiser Health News, published in many news outlets. That report found that perhaps the gravest danger to rural hospitals are the outrageously high deductibles private insurers have imposed on Americans.

The report begins with the story of Colorado nurse Kristie Flowers, who was treated for pneumonia and sepsis at Lincoln Community Hospital and St. Francis Medical Center. Even though she had insurance, it was a high-deductible plan, meaning that she had to pay $8,000 out of her own pocket for the care those hospitals provided.

The story went on to note that because so many Coloradans and other Americans don’t have enough money to cover their deductibles, hospitals are experiencing a growing and already huge problem of bad debt. To try to collect what they are owed, hospitals routinely send the unpaid bills to a collection agency to hound the patients. An untold number of Coloradans have been forced into bankruptcy or are deep in debt because of medical bills their private insurers won’t cover.

As I know first-hand, the industry likes to hire consulting firms to do studies to reinforce the health insurance industry’s agenda. During the debate on the bill that became the Affordable Care Act, the industry’s big PR and lobbying group (America’s Health Insurance Plans) hired PricewaterhouseCoopers to do a study to scare people about that legislation. In one such instance, PwC put out a widely discredited study a few weeks before a key Senate reform vote in 2009 to try to mislead people into believing the reform bill would raise premiums. But the firm was later forced to disavow the study’s conclusions when reporters found it ignored numerous countervailing facts.

That, folks, is how my former industry rolls: Commission a study that will report what the industry wants reported, and obscure other essential information that would present a more accurate picture of reality.

So, to my friends in Colorado: Please don’t be surprised if you are bombarded with lies that attack the Colorado option health plan and make it seem like a deadly curse. The truth is, another option for health insurance is good for you, and bad for the insurance companies. That’s why they will spend millions to try to stop it.

I would know. To my eternal shame, I helped create this evil playbook.

Wendell Potter is a former executive at Cigna and Humana, turned health insurance whistleblower, who is now the president of the Center for Health & Democracy.


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