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Donna Smith

Donna Smith, American SiCKO, is executive director of the Health Care for All Colorado Foundation

November 19th, 2010 8:36 AM

Confusion Trips Up 'Confuser' Turned Whistleblower

Sometimes you cannot make up the twists and turns in life that burst forward out of the relatively predictable stuff. Such is the case as for-profit, private health insurance spokesperson turned whistleblower, Wendell Potter, made what might have seemed at the time a minor gaffe.

During one of his book tour press moments on Countdown with Keith Olbermann, Potter said:

OLBERMANN: And did you—did I read this correctly, that you got stuff from these talking points? From this smear campaign into mainstream representations of Moore at “New York Times,” perhaps?

POTTER: Oh, absolutely. It was funneled through AHIP (America’s Health Insurance Plans) into a front group called Healthcare (for) America Now, which was received by mainstream reporters, including “The New York Times,” as a legitimate organization when he was nothing but a front group set up by APCO Worldwide, a big PR firm that works for both the insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies. It was not anything approaching what it was reporting to be as a grassroots organization. It was a sham group.

OLBERMANN: You mentioned AHIP. We‘ll talk more about Mr. Moore when you‘re both here on Monday, but the “Bloomberg” report that AHIP spent $86 million to stunt or stop health care reform, you know, in this nightmare fantasy, chairing up with—teaming up with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce - - what did they get for their $86 million?

POTTER: They got a Republican Congress, for one thing. And they got a bill that is kind of like the cake. And now they‘re wanting to eat that cake, too.

The insurance industry played the Obama administration like Stradivarius. And they did the same things with the members of the Tea Party. The Tea Party folks may think that Congress might repeal this legislation, but there ain‘t that chance because what the insurers like about this is the requirement that we all have to buy their products, and there‘s no public option to funnel any of that money away from them. They‘ll be getting new revenue that will be converted into profits for their shareholders.

It was not the group Health Care for America Now (HCAN) that was the front for the insurance industry in terms of millions and millions of industry dollars in funding. It was the group Health Care America (HCA) that Potter meant to call out. Now the folks who were part of HCAN are upset – and that’s a lot of folks.

But another group is lapping up the Potter gaffe as proof that they were right about the industry funding its own enrichment through health reform or a lack thereof. Single-payer activists, many of whom are members of Healthcare-Now, were angry when HCAN was launched because they believed the use of the name Health Care for America Now intentionally confused people who might have thought they were supporting single-payer, Medicare for All type reform. HCN folks thought HCAN was largely a mouthpiece for the expansion of the health insurance industry and may as well have been funded by the industry even if the ties could not be uncovered at the time.

So enter Wendell Potter after years of working in the corporate spokesperson’s role for major for-profit health insurance giants (like CIGNA and others) who defects after a crisis of conscience (and after his kids were raised and well-supported) and becomes a spokesperson for what is wrong with the system and tells all (as far as we know so far) about the dirty little tricks of the industry as it worked to influence public policy and buy the kind of reform that makes health insurance industry CEOs into kings and queens. He writes a book telling all. Then he goes on his media tour promoting the book. And then the mistake was made. Wendell, the “confuser,” became Wendell the confused. Just like the rest of us, tripped up by the intentional closely worded group names and monikers.

The media attention now turns to the industry efforts Potter helped orchestrate to discredit Michael Moore’s documentary film, SiCKO. Michael and Wendell will appear together on Countdown on Monday night next week to hash out the history of that media battle. Both men have said good things about single-payer reform, and both men have also supported the healthcare law that just passed, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) of 2010. Both are good draws for ratings, and a little bit of controversy never hurt the news media or book sales or movie ticket sales.

During the years when Wendell was doing the bidding of the insurance industry, countless patients and their families were injured and lots of people died after being denied care at the hands of the their insurance companies and their for-profit health providers. He knows that and owns that. Thank goodness Potter turned a significant corner in his professional life, but the suffering at the hands of this system continues unabated.

Even in this latest twist and all the priceless examples of confused language of the health reform debate, the forces that grow wealthier at the expense of patients and their well-being will take pleasure at the attempts to clarify what was never meant to be clear. The simplest, clearest argument was purposely muddied and mangled. Creating a progressively financed, single standard of high quality care for all was never vetted. Medicare, improved and expanded, for all.

HCAN, HCA, HCN. Does any of that matter when 45,000 people are still dying every year in the U.S, because they cannot access appropriate healthcare? HCAN, HCN, HCA. 123 dead today. HCN, HCA, HCAN. No media giant will report that. Even Olbermann is not likely to count the dead on Monday evening or concentrate on the patient stories that drove Potter’s conscience to ache or those that lifted Moore’s film, SiCKO, to a position that made it ripe for attack. I hope I am wrong. I have long wanted to see the healthcare war death ticker featured just like the war dead used to be counted on the Huntley-Brinkley reports during the Vietnam era.

The reality is that the quote that troubled me most from the Olbermann interview was not the gaffe of group names. I reacted to Wendell saying that President Obama was played like a fine violin by the insurance industry during the health reform debate. My reality says that Obama was first chair of the violin section in an orchestra conducted by the insurance industry, big Pharma and the large corporate providers. And patients weren’t even written into the score. That was no error.

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