Wendell Potter and the Deathly Panels

A former health insurance insider airs the industry's dirty laundry


Some readers have probably heard of Wendell Potter, the former CIGNA public relations executive who has become a major whistle-blower on the health insurance industry over the past year. He has appeared on many prominent news and talk shows and even testified before Congress calling for radical reform of the healthcare system.

Last week, he gave a spirited talk before 200 people in favor of real health reform at the Free Library of Philadelphia. The crowd was composed mainly of activists from Health Care for America NowHealthcare-NOW! and Health Care For All Philadelphia, and Mr. Potter was clearly preaching to the choir. He detailed the horrors of the insurance industry, the immense power of the industry's lobby over Washington, and the infuriatingly pro-industry nature of the health "reform" bill proposed by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Health Insurance Industry), which he referred to as the "Insurance Industry Profit Protection and Enhancement Act."

He did much to effectively shift the focus of the argument from government to the private insurance industry. Citing the mass denial of coverage that leaves so many Americans without healthcare when they need it most, he referred to ours as "the most insidious rationing system in the developed world." He countered fears of death panels by pointing out, "There's a corporate bureaucrat sitting between you and your doctor... and that's been there a long time!"

"Even if something passes [through Congress] this year, those of you who are single-payer advocates: keep active!" Mr. Potter suggested, "Don't give up!" Almost every mention of a single-payer system was met with enthusiastic applause by the crowd.

During the Q&A portion of the event, the audience was encouraged to submit questions, and I was handed a sheet of paper. Representing the Democratic Socialists of America, I of course felt the need to add some socialist language to the conversation, so I wrote a question framing healthcare as a human right, not a commodity. After many questions clarifying the effects of the Baucus bill on Medicare, the difference between a public option and single-payer, and other topics along those lines, the moderator read my question. He asked me to stand up and speak a bit more on what I was getting at, and I obliged. The crowd applauded, and Mr. Potter immediately replied, "I totally agree." He continued on to discuss the weakness of the logic of the free market as it applies to health insurance, and concluded "the invisible hand, as described by Adam Smith... obviously just does not work." He described the lack of competition that exists in the insurance market, pointing out that in most areas, only two or three companies have access at all. This is obvious in the Philadelphia area, where Independence Blue Cross has a near monopoly. Not even CIGNA, which is based in the city, can penetrate the market. Since "barriers for entry are almost insurmountable," Mr. Potter, argued, "this idea of co-ops [as proposed in the Baucus bill as an alternative to a public option] is just ludicrous."

Despite the apparent lack of progress in Washington, the fact that Wendell Potter, a former health insurance PR exec, is so actively campaigning for real healthcare reform (featuring a robust public option if not a single-payer system itself) and criticizing the effectiveness of market distribution, is very encouraging to me. I hope he and the thousands of grassroots activists we see at these events continue to mount pressure on Congress from the left and shift the balance away from the insurance industry and the know-nothing right.

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