Michael Moore, the Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker, makes great movies but they are not generally considered "cliff-hangers." All that might change since a whistle-blower on the "Democracy Now!" news hour revealed that health insurance executives thought they may have to implement a plan "to push Moore off a cliff." The whistle-blower: Wendell Potter, the former chief spokesman for health insurance giant Cigna. He was quoting from an industry strategy session on how to respond to Moore's 2007 documentary "Sicko," a film critical of the U.S. health insurance industry. Potter told me that he is not sure how serious the threat was but he added, ominously, "These companies play to win."
Moore won an Oscar in 2002 for his film about gun violence, "Bowling for Columbine." He followed that with "Fahrenheit 9/11," a documentary on the presidency of George W. Bush that became the top-grossing documentary film in U.S. history. So when Moore told a reporter that his next film would be about the U.S. health care system, the insurance industry took notice.
AHIP (America's Health Insurance Plans), the major lobbying group of the for-profit health insurance corporations, secretly sent someone to the world premiere of "Sicko" at the Cannes Film Festival in France. Its agent rushed from the screening to a conference call with industry executives, including Potter. "We were very scared," Potter said, "and we knew that we would have to develop a very sophisticated and expensive campaign to turn people away from the idea of universal care. ... We were told by our pollsters [that] a majority of people were in favor of much greater government involvement in our health care system."
AHIP hired a public-relations firm, APCO Worldwide, founded by the powerful law firm Arnold & Porter, to coordinate the response. APCO formed the fake grass-roots consumer group "Health Care America" to counter the expected popularity of Moore's "Sicko" and to promote fear of "government run health care."
Potter writes in his new book, "Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR Is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans," that he "found the film very moving and very effective in its condemnation of the practices of private health insurance companies. There were many times when I had to fight to hold back tears. Moore had gotten it right."
The insurance industry declared its campaign against "Sicko" a resounding success. Potter wrote, "AHIP and APCO Worldwide had succeeded in getting their talking points into most of the stories about the movie, and not a single reporter had done enough investigative work to find out that insurers had provided the lion's share of funding to set up Health Care America." Indeed, everyone from CNN to USA Today cited Health Care America as if it were a legitimate group.
Moore concedes, "Their smear campaign was effective and did create the dent they were hoping for-single payer and the public option never even made it into the real discussion on the floor of Congress."
Moore has called Potter the "Daniel Ellsberg of corporate America," invoking the famous Pentagon whistle-blower whose revelations helped end the Vietnam War. Potter's courageous stand made an impact on the debate, but the insurance industry, the hospitals and the American Medical Association prevailed in blunting the elements of the plan that threatened their profits.
A recent Harvard Medical School study found that nearly 45,000 Americans die each year-one every 12 minutes-largely because they lack health insurance. But for the insurance lobby, the only tragedy is the prospect of true health care reform. In 2009, the nation's largest health insurance corporations funneled more than $86 million to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to oppose health care reform. This year, the nation's five largest insurers contributed three times as much money to Republican candidates as to Democrats, in an effort to further roll back insurance industry reform. Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., an advocate of single payer health care, declared in Congress that "the Republican Party is a wholly owned subsidiary of the insurance industry." Potter agrees, saying the Republican Party has "been almost bought and paid for."
The health insurance industry is getting
its money's worth. Moore said that the industry was willing to attack
his film because it was afraid it "could trigger a populist uprising
against a sick system that will allow companies to profit off of us when
we fall ill." Now that is truly sick.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.