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Former Health Insurance Insider Pushes For Public Option

Rick Green

November 03, 2009

Wendell Potter, a former vice president for corporate communications at CIGNA, returned to the Insurance City Monday to politely bite the hand that once rewarded him.

Potter spent years with CIGNA, where it was his job to convince the public that insurance reform with government-sponsored health care amounted to a "government takeover."

"That's a phrase I used to write. That's a lie," Potter told me during a whirlwind visit sponsored by the health care reform group Citizens for Economic Opportunity. Instead, he said "it will give people an additional choice."

I listened closely to this soft-spoken man, in his bland suit and horn-rimmed glasses, who talks of respect for his former insurance industry colleagues and his disdain for corporate leaders, blinded by profits, now trying to block reforms that include the public option.

This longtime executive's path to enlightenment is revealing. The more he learned and the higher he climbed within CIGNA, the more questions and sleepless nights he had.

"You really cannot trust the insurance companies to do the right thing. I know that from many years of working for them," said Potter, the industry's highest-ranking and perhaps only whistle-blower. "I regret that I have to say that."

At CIGNA, spokesman Chris Curran e-mailed me to say that "we strongly support comprehensive health care reform with the goal of expanding access, controlling costs and improving the quality of care. We strongly disagree with the suggestion that, motivated by profits, the insurance industry has deliberately attempted to confuse or unfairly treat covered individuals."

As he cut a swath through Hartford Monday, Potter offered a very different picture. He stumped for the public option now before Congress. He blasted the "Wall Street model" for health care that dumps sick patients, "purges" small business and shifts an unfair burden of medical costs to the consumer.

Insurance companies, he said, "spend enormous amounts of money in focus groups. They pay a lot of premium dollars to gauge public attitudes. It is a careful study of linguistics and knowing what motivates people and how to reach people on an emotional level."

Potter, who is 58, believes health care reform that includes a government-run alternative to private insurance won't be a financial disaster. He predicted that none of this will eliminate private jobs because the insurance industry is, above all else, adept at adapting to changes in the marketplace.

After 20 years in the business, Potter had a revelation in 2007 that he likens to a "a bolt of lightning" striking him.

That year he watched CIGNA initially deny coverage to a woman needing a liver transplant. Then, while visiting relatives, he went to a health exposition in Virginia, where he saw thousands of people, many with insurance, lining up for charity health care, waiting for treatment like cattle in a barn. He left CIGNA within a year.

Potter is now a consultant, his six-figure CIGNA job gone. His own health insurance is now a high-deductible plan through his wife, who manages a retail store for The Gap.

How does a man spend years at the top, who wrote the phony speeches and who dined on fine china in the corporate jet, finally realize the truth?

"You get caught up in the system for one thing, but you also have obligations to your family," Potter replied. "You want to do a good job. You want to get a salary increase. You want to get that bonus.

"I had a terrific career. What happened to me is I got to see things in a different perspective the longer I stayed in the industry. It took me a long time to understand how the insurance industry worked."

Potter said dozens of executives, including those right here in Hartford, know what is going on. His job now is to call these people out for the sake of the country and the insurance industry.

"There are a lot of people in positions of responsibility and they know what they are doing is not in the public's good. I'd like to tell them it's possible to step out and do the right thing," he said. "You sure sleep better when you do."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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