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Rally Against Wall Street's Health Care Takeover

Saturday, August 29 I had the good fortune to speak at a community rally for health care reform in a city park in downtown Portland, Oregon. It was a broad-based and diverse group with many signs and placards supporting the 'public option' being debated by Congress, and others calling for 'single payer' reform like that working effectively in other countries such as Canada. Here is what I said:

I would like to begin by apologizing to all of you for the role I played 15 years ago in cheating you out of a reformed health care system. Had it not been for greedy insurance companies and other special interests, and their army of lobbyists and spin-doctors like I used to be, we wouldn't be here today.

I'm ashamed that I let myself get caught up in deceitful and dishonest PR campaigns that worked so well, hundreds of thousands of our citizens have died, and millions of others have lost their homes and been forced into bankruptcy, so that a very few corporate executives and their Wall Street masters could become obscenely rich.

But It was only during the last few years of my career that I came to realize the full scope of the harm my colleagues and I had caused, and the lengths that insurance companies will go to increase their profits at the expense of working families.

As I told the Senate Commerce Committee two months ago, the higher up the corporate ladder I climbed, the more I could see how insurance companies confuse their customers and dump the sick - all so they can satisfy those Wall Street masters.

I described for the senators how insurers make promises they have no intention of keeping, how they flout regulations designed to protect consumers, and how they make it nearly impossible to understand -- or even to obtain -- information consumers need.

I also told the Committee how the industry has conducted duplicitous and well-financed PR and lobbying campaigns every time Congress has tried to reform our health care system -- and how its current behind-scenes-efforts may well shape reform in a way that benefits Wall Street far more than average Americans.

I noted that, just as the industry did 15 years ago when it led the effort to kill the Clinton reform plan, it is using shills and front groups to spread lies and disinformation to scare Americans away from the very reform that would benefit them most.

Make no mistake, the industry, despite its public assurances to be good-faith partners with the President and Congress, has been at work for years laying the groundwork for devious and often sinister campaigns to manipulate public opinion.

The industry goes to great lengths to keep its involvement in these campaigns hidden from public view. But I know from having served on many trade group committees that industry leaders are always full partners in developing strategies to derail any reform that might interfere with their ability to increase their companies' profits.

My involvement in those activities goes back to the early ‘90s when insurers joined with other special interests to finance the activities of an organization called the Healthcare Leadership Council, which led a coordinated effort to scare Americans and members of Congress away from the Clinton plan.

A few years after that victory, the insurers formed a front group called the Health Benefits Coalition to kill efforts to pass a Patients Bill of Rights. While it was touted as a broad-based business group, the Health Benefits Coalition in reality got the lion's share of its funding from Big Insurance.

Like most front groups, the Health Benefits Coalition was set up and run out of a big and well-connected PR firm. One of the key strategies developed by the PR firm as the coalition was gearing up for battle in late 1998 was to stir up support among conservative talk radio hosts and other media.

The PR firm formed alliances with groups like the Christian Coalition and the Family Research Council and persuaded them to send letters to Congress and to appear at press conferences. The firm also launched an advertising campaign in conservative media outlets. The message was that President Clinton owed a debt to the liberal base of the Democratic Party and would try to pay back that debt by advancing the type of big government agenda on health care that he failed to get in 1993. Those tactics worked. Industry allies in Congress made sure the Patients' Bill of Rights would not become law.

The insurance industry has funded several other front groups since then whenever the industry has been under attack. It formed the Coalition for Affordable Quality Healthcare to try to improve the image of managed care in response to a constant stream of negative stories that appeared in the media in the late ‘90s and the first years of this decade.

It funded another front group when lawyers began filing class action lawsuits on behalf of doctors and patients.

The PR firm the industry hired to create that front group, by the way, had planned and conducted a similar campaign for the tobacco industry a few years earlier.

The insurance industry hired that same PR firm again in 2007 to help blunt the impact of Michael Moore's movie, "Sicko." It created and staffed a front group called "Health Care America" specifically to discredit Moore and to demonize the health care systems featured in the movie.

Among the tactics the PR firm used once again was to enlist the support of conservative talk show hosts, writers and editorial page editors to warn against a "government-takeover" of the U.S. health care system. The term "government-takeover" is one the industry has used many times over the years to scare people away from reform.

Health Care America also placed ads in newspapers. One of those ads carried this message, "In America, you wait in line to see a movie. In government-run health care systems, you wait to see a doctor."

With this history, you can rest assured that the insurance industry is up to the same dirty tricks, using the same devious PR practices it has used for many years, to kill reform this year, or even better, to shape reform so that it benefits insurance companies and their Wall Street investors far more than average Americans.

Americans need to be alert to how the industry and its allies are working to influence their opinions and lawmakers' votes. I know from years as an industry PR executive how effective insurers have been in using scare tactics to turn public opinion against any reform efforts that would threaten their profitability.

I warned earlier this year that Americans and the media should pay close attention to the efforts insurers and their ideological buddies would undertake to demonize health care systems around the world that don't allow for-profit insurance companies to have the free reign they have here.

Americans must realize that the when they hear isolated stories of long waiting times to see doctors in Canada and allegations that care in other systems is rationed by government bureaucrats, the insurance industry has written the script.

And Americans must realize that every time they hear we will be heading down the "slippery slope toward socialism" if Congress creates a public insurance option to compete with private insurers, some insurance flack like I used to be wrote that, too.

Every time you hear about the shortcomings of what they call "government-run" health care, remember this: what we have now in this country, and what the insurers are determined to keep in place, is Wall Street-run health care.

And know that we already have one of the most insidious means of rationing care in the world -- not by people we can hold accountable on election day but by insurance company executives who answer only to a few wealthy investors and hedge fund managers who care far more about earnings per share than your health and well-being.

If Congress goes along with the "solutions" the insurance industry says it is bringing to the table and fails to create a public insurance option to compete with private insurers, the bill it sends to President Obama might as well be called the Insurance Industry Profit Protection and Enhancement Act.

Some in the media believe the health insurers have already won. That's not only because the debate over reform seems to have been hijacked recently by insurance company shills and people who believe the lies they have been spewing, but because of the billions of dollars the insurers have been spending to influence votes on Capitol Hill.

Folks, it is not too late to keep the insurers from winning, but time is running short. We need to think of the coming weeks as some of the most important weeks in the history of this country. We need to think that way because they will be, and we must redouble our efforts to make sure members of Congress put our interests above those of private health insurers and others who view reform as a way to make more money.

If we want to take back control or our health care system from the big for-profit companies that have wrecked it, we must take back control of this debate. We must begin to talk in ways that reach our friends and neighbors who have been influenced by the lies.

We need to tell them that we can continue to have a system that allows 20,000 Americans to die every year because they don't have insurance, or we can have a system that will make sure their sons and daughters are not one of them.

We should ask the skeptics of a public option, who are afraid that giving people a choice of a government-run plan will lead to socialism, if they would want to go back to the day when Americans had to buy private fire insurance.

Tell them if they lived in Ben Franklin's day and they didn't have a shield on the outside of their house indicating they were insured, their town's private fire insurance companies would let their house burn down. The private insurance companies would keep your fire from spreading to your insured next-door neighbor's house, but your house would soon be nothing more than a pile of ashes.

We must remind our family members and our friends and neighbors why we are having this debate in the first place. If they tell you they don't think their tax dollars should be used to pay for someone else's coverage, point out to them that they already are paying for the care uninsured people receive when they go to the emergency room and can't afford to pay the exorbitant bills they get from the hospital. Those of us who are insured pay an extra thousand dollars in premiums every year just to cover that uncompensated care.

If they say they don't want to saddle their children and grandchildren with additional taxes, ask them if they have thought what might happen to their children and grandchildren if they found themselves among the millions of people without health insurance or, maybe more likely, among the underinsured.

Ask them how they would feel if their daughter came down with breast cancer soon after she and your son-in-law moved into their dream house and just as your grandchildren were beginning to think about college.

Ask them how they would feel if their daughter and son-in-law learned that the insurance they thought would be there when they needed it required them to pay so much out of their own pockets that they couldn't afford to pay for their daughter's cancer treatments and also make the house payments.

Ask them how they would feel if their children and grandchildren were forced out of their dream home and into bankruptcy, and ask them how they would feel if their grandchildren had to give up their dreams of going to college.

Ask them how they would feel if their granddaughter fell into the wrong crowd and died of a drug overdose just as her high school friends were graduating from the college she herself had once dreamed of graduating from. Ask them how they would feel when they found out that this all happened because their daughter's private insurance company forced her to pay more for her care than her family could afford just so it could continue to pay its CEO $30 million a year and meet Wall Street's profit expectations.

Folks, I believe we Americans by and large are a compassionate people. Yes, we believe in individual responsibility, but we also believe in the Golden Rule.

I don't know a single American -- or at least I hope I don't -- who would knowingly wish the future I just described on anyone's family. But the sad reality is that many of the people who have become unwitting spokespeople for the insurance industry -- the people who are objecting to a public insurance option because they have bought into the lies the insurance industry's shills are telling them -- will ensure that that horrific future is a reality for millions of Americans, including their loved ones, if the insurance industry wins this debate again.

So over the coming weeks, we must tell our conservative friends who are worried needlessly about a government-takeover of our health care system that what we all should really be concerned about is the Wall-Street takeover that has occurred while we were not paying attention.

It is that takeover that has led to more and more working Americans being forced into the ranks of the uninsured. It is that takeover that has forced millions more of us into the ranks of the underinsured because insurers are making us pay thousands of dollars out of our own pockets before they'll pay a dime.

It is that takeover that has forced many of our neighbors out of their homes and into bankruptcy. And it is that takeover that is causing more and more small businesses to stop offering coverage to their employees because of the exorbitant premiums that greedy, Wall-Street-driven insurers are charging them.

I want to close by thanking you for being here today and for the hard work you've already been doing to try to persuade members of Congress to do the right thing. But as I pointed out earlier, the coming weeks will be some of the most important weeks of our lives.

Let's pledge to each other that we will work even harder to ensure that America joins the rest of the developed world in making sure that ALL of its citizens -- our brothers and sisters, our sons and our daughters, our neighbors and our co-workers -- have good coverage we can all have the peace of mind knowing will be there when and if we need it. Thank you.


Wendell Potter

Wendell Potter

Wendell Potter is the former vice president for corporate communications at Cigna. He is now president of Business for Medicare for All and author of bestselling books Deadly Spin and Nation on the Take.

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