THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE: Q&A w/ Wendell Potter, Healthcare Executive Turned Whistleblower

                                                                                                 [Photo by ROBIN ODLAND]

PART II JONATHAN VALANIA This is the second installment of a massive, 30,000 word, three-part Q&A with Philadelphian Wendell Potter*, former mild-mannered Cigna health insurance executive turned whistle-blowing superman standing up for truth, justice and the American way. (You can read Part I HERE.) You may have seen Mr. Potter testifying before Congress or talking about the ills of the health insurance industrial complex on CNN or MSNBC or PBS, or in the pages of The New York Times, Wall Street Journal or Time magazine, to name but a few. Last year he published Deadly Spin, an authoritative takedown of a sick and dangerous healthcare system and the incredibly powerful and phenomenally profitable industry that games it for billions. He debunks the dark arts of modern corporate P.R. that uses subterfuge, misdirection and good old fashioned distortion of the truth to manipulate public opinion and absolve its paymasters of all culpability for the dirty deeds that make those obscene profits possible. In the end, Deadly Spin is an impassioned call for substantive reform, basic mercy and common decency.

In the first installment we discussed the crisis of conscience that turned him from loyal, not to mention highly paid, company man to crusading reformer, watchdog and all-around thorn in the industry’s side. Having long thought he was on the side of the angels he increasingly came to realize that he was in fact playing for the other team, that the point of for-profit healthcare insurance is not paying for customers’ medical costs but avoiding doing so whenever possible. That for-profit health insurance corporations have a legal obligation to prioritize the of shareholder value over saving the lives of its customers. That he had blood on his hands. That he was an apologist for a system that denies medical care to more than 50 million Americans, and as a result more than 48,000 people die prematurely every year. Potter was tasked with writing an official-sounding report that minimized the problem and shifted all the blame on the uninsured. He helped craft reform-killing talking points for the healthcare lobby’s Congressional stooges to repeat into the cameras of Fox News and CNN. He was part of the effort to smear Michael Moore and discredit Sicko, his 2007 critique of the iniquities of the healthcare industrial complex, even though deep down he knew Moore was dead-on. The final straw was having to serve as company spokesperson through the resulting media firestorm when Cigna denied 17-year-old Nataline Sarkisyan a liver transplant and she died less than a week later. It is the campaign against Michael Moore and Sicko that we focus on in this installment. It begins with a cabal of health insurance operatives hiring a mole to sneak into the premier of Sicko at Cannes and take notes so that neutralizing talking points can be crafted. These talking points — which mostly rely on the usual lizard brain illuminators, namely fear (“Universal coverage is creeping Socialism!”) and loathing (“Taxpayers will  have to pay out of pocket for illegal immigrants to get Cadillac health care!”) — are then passed along to various industry-owned Congressmen who dutifully parrot them in the echo chamber of 24-7 cable news and talk radio. It ends with Wendell Potter apologizing to Michael Moore live on national television.

PHAWKER: Just to pick up where we left off. Cigna refuses to pay for Nataline Sakisyan’s liver transplant, then after her parents stage a series of protests that get lots of media coverage, Cigna decides to go ahead and pay for the procedure but by then it’s too late and she dies. You point out in the book that the cost of Nataline’s liver transplant would have been about the equivalent of the catering and hospitality budget of an investor’s meeting?

WENDELL POTTER: It was about the equivalent of the budget for the half day in its entirety at the hotel in New York where it was held. That included the rooms of the Cigna people who were staying at the hotel, the rent of the facilities and the catering, and audio/visual support. So it was about $250,000 or so. The cost of the transplant would have been about that. Of course, the after-care expenses would have been beyond that.

PHAWKER: So you guys decide to go ahead and green-light the transplant but it’s too late and she passes away. What’s the reaction to that around Cigna HQ? POTTER: I guess I’ll just start with myself. I was personally devastated because I just really thought that she was well enough to live long enough to get the transplant. I hadn’t realized she’d gotten that sick that fast. My small staff was really very devastated as well. It was hard to determine how the rest of headquarters felt. We got really busy, or at least I did, writing a public condolence to the family. I think it shifted very quickly to, “Well, what are we going to do next and how are we going to defend ourselves from an inevitable lawsuit?” It was very quickly that the attention turned to the company’s legal defense and setting up what was referred to as the “lead team” at Cigna. The lead team involved a few people led by someone who reported to the general counsel, I was a part of it, members of Cigna Healthcare including the chief medical officer and the head of Cigna Healthcare were part of the lead team. It was just a team of people that met by phone or in person if everyone was together, on a very regular basis, at least daily and initially twice a day to determine what was happening in terms of news coverage – I was responsible for monitoring that and making sure the executives have all the news coverage. So it was very quickly a change in focus now that Nataline was dead, that meant that the PR nightmare was not over by any means for the company, it was really in a way just beginning, we were probably going to be having to sustain that for quite some time, or at least endure it.

PHAWKER: How did that play out? You resigned how long after this?

WENDELL POTTER: I resigned in May. This happened in December, it was December the 20th, 2007, when Nataline died and I left in May of 2008. Actually turned in my notice in January, but my boss persuaded me to stay for a while longer and so I agreed to do that and stayed until May.

PHAWKER: So you were kind of out of the afterword to that story.

WENDELL POTTER: Not really, to an extent I was and I wasn’t. It began to diminish while I was still there. The media moved on to other things before too long, I was very much involved in damage control, working with a PR firm to try to place sympathetic articles about Cigna in various media. So I was part of the effort to try to shift the public opinion to be more favorable towards Cigna.

PHAWKER: Sympathetic stories about Cigna regarding this incident or just in general?

WENDELL POTTER: Sympathetic stories regarding this incident.

PHAWKER: What was the sympathetic side of Cigna’s story?

WENDELL POTTER: I guess you’d say the story line was Cigna was doing what it had an obligation to do, that it was obligated to try to make sure the’s money was spent prudently, and it was part of the company’s responsibility to review these requests for expensive procedures and make a judgement call as to whether or not they should go forward. I guess you’d say the rough rest of it was to try and explain to people that Nataline might not have gotten that transplant as she did in a public program, if she’d been living in Canada or the UK, we made that point. We made the point that financial resources are not infinite, they’re limited. So we tried to at least persuade the business community that we had done the right thing. That’s why it was important to get an op-ed place in the Wall Street Journal, to try to reassure business customers and prospective customers that we thought we’d handled the case appropriately.

PHAWKER: Did you write the op-ed?

WENDELL POTTER: I did not, the author was a guy named Scott Gottlieb. And I’m sure the PR firm assisted in writing.

PHAWKER: So taking off your Cigna employee hat and putting on your human being hat, is there a justifiable side to Cigna’s story in this saga?

WENDELL POTTER: You know, I do agree that resources are not infinite, there are limits on what you can do, but my biggest concern here is I would not want to know that if my daughter were in that situation that a medical director at a for-profit health insurance company would be calling the shots and making the final decision as to whether or not she would get the coverage she needed to pay for it. That medical director who made that decision was just as much of a corporate as I was, I’m sure he got stock options and stock grants and bonuses based on his performance just like I was. I know how it works inside a corporation like that, and that’s where I think the problem lies. It’s our for-profit structure of health insurance and so much of our healthcare system is for-profit. I would much rather have had someone who was either working for a non-profit health plan make that decision, or preferably in a single payer system, where there would be some remove from the profit motive, it’s the profit motive I think, well I know that I have the biggest problem with.

PHAWKER: Let’s walk through you checking out of the business. You were thinking about this for a while, you saw firsthand the annual healthcare expedition in the rural South that draws thousands of the working poor who are uninsured, then your riding on the corporate jet with the CEO and eating off of fine china which costs the equivalent of the combined annual premiums of five Cigna customers for every hour of operation, and then Nataline Sarkysan death is the proverbial nail in the coffin. You decide that you were going to give notice and the reaction to that is? Did you explain to them why you were leaving?

WENDELL POTTER: Not fully, I just explained to them that I was just burned out. I didn’t want to keep doing what I was doing. I had a good long run at the company, I was grateful for the chance to have a paycheck for 15 years and the things I had when I was there, and I just didn’t want to do that anymore. I didn’t have it in me to do this anymore. I was no more specific than that really. I didn’t have a plan, I just wanted to leave.

PHAWKER: So you told them you would stay on until May?

WENDELL POTTER: Yeah, my boss had asked me to stay on until the company announced Cigna quarter earnings, which I was responsible for doing, and to be there to help handle the annual meeting. Those were two of my main responsibilities as head of financial communications. I agreed to do it, like I said I didn’t have anything else lined up, I just didn’t want stay there for a long period of time but I was willing to stay on at my boss’s request for a while longer. I was sorting things through in my head, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I really didn’t. I was very relieved when I walked out the door May the 2nd and’t have to do that anymore. I think my boss had detected that I wasn’t a happy camper in the months preceding that. She said at one point, “Wendell, you don’t seem to be engaged.” I knew if she was picking up on that then it was very evident that I wasn’t very happy to be there. So she wasn’t shocked, but some were very surprised, they didn’t have a succession plan in place so one of the reasons she asked me to stay on was until they could figure out how they would divide my responsibilities.

PHAWKER: And the third quarter was very healthy and profitable for Cigna?

WENDELL POTTER: Yeah, quite healthy, quite profitable. This was in the book but I can’t remember now what the results were but the company was profitable and I think the company was happy and I walk out the door and that was it.

PHAWKER: How many shareholders would show up at these meetings?

WENDELL POTTER: Oh, very few. It’s surprising, it varies from company to company but Cigna has never had a large turnout at these shareholder meetings. One thing to keep in mind is that the shares of these companies are largely owned by institutional investors, not individuals. There are some individuals who own stock and who do show up, but the best majority of the shares are owned by large institutional investors. They’ll often send a representative to the annual meeting but usually not because they keep up with the company on a regular basis, they have access to CEO and the CFO almost any time they want it, so it’s not very well attended and they’re usually very brief – that’s the goal. The company always strives to make sure they can get through the annual meeting very very quickly, in fact if the meeting lasts 15 minutes or longer it’s a marathon meeting.

PHAWKER: And people are flying in from all over for this? Is it in New York or Philadelphia?

WENDELL POTTER: Philadelphia. Philadelphia or in the suburbs, for a while we were having it in Bryn Mawr, and towards the end of my time there they started having it at the Art Museum.

PHAWKER: It costs a quarter million dollars for a 15 minute meeting?

WENDELL POTTER: This is a different meeting, the annual meeting is separate from the investor meeting. The investor meeting I was talking about is for a much different prize, largely for the Wall Street analysts who cover the company, and some of the institutional investors and representatives here and there. It’s called an investor’s meeting, but it’s really a meeting for analysts. Financial analysts are extraordinarily powerful and influential. The reports they write are very much heeded by investors. If they like you they write positive things about you and that’s a good thing for you, but if they don’t and they downgrade your shares, then you’re likely to get a hit in the stock market.

PHAWKER: Speak to that. What do you make of the integrity of that whole process? Are they truly independent or are people persuading them and buying them fancy meals, etc?

WENDELL POTTER: There are enough laws in place and regulations in place, they’re pretty careful, they don’t seem to be in the pocket of any given companies. Shareholders would be upset if they came to find out an analyst was really in the pocket of a particular company. That said, they have very easy access to top executives. It’s always important to try to influence them, to persuade them to think positive in positive terms about the company and the company’s future. So it’s somewhat of a game, an ongoing game of trying to go beyond just what the numbers in the quarterly earnings report shows and to drill down deeper to the company’s strategy for the future. So it’s an exceedingly important audience and there are very well heeled individuals who do this who work for big companies that are on Wall Street we all know about – CitiGroup, Goldman Sachs, you name it – they all are assigned to cover certain industries.

PHAWKER: Let’s talk about modern PR techniques and how they were employed in the anti-Sicko campaign. Good PR is invisible so most people probably think you just issue press releases, but there is a lot more to it. You are manipulating public opinion and if you are doing it right nobody ever suspects they are being manipulated. It’s called framing. You want to frame the story in the most sympathetic terms to the people you work for. Can you talk about that?

WENDELL POTTER: One of my biggest responsibilities was to develop good relationships with key reporters at the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, mainstream media, when appropriate with the broadcast media and usually at the national level but sometimes at the state and local levels, too, and to work with the trade associations for the insurance agency, because we often did not want to get involved in handling questions about public policy itself, we wanted to have the trade association do that. Much of what we do is to try to manipulate public opinion but do it in a way that’s completely undetected by the public. That’s one of the reasons why these trade associations are important. That’s one layer. If you don’t even want your trade association to be actively involved or vocal on some issue, you funnel – I say launder – your money through the trade association. Your trade association in turn will hire a PR firm, often to set up front group that is reporting to the trade organization, but in reality it’s nothing more than a shell operation run out of a big PR firm.

PHAWKER: Astro-turf they call it. Was that the term you guys were using in-house?

WENDELL POTTER: Well, we didn’t use it so much, we didn’t use the term “front group” either, we just called them a coalition.

PHAWKER: What was the name of the trade group again?

WENDELL POTTER: The trade group is America’s Health Insurance Plans, that’s the big trade group for all health insurance companies. America’s Health Insurance Plans, or AHIP for short. AHIP is extraordinarily influential in Washington, pays its president very very well. She’s one of the best lobbyists in Washington, she’s extremely well known in the media.

PHAWKER: What was her name again?

WENDELL POTTER: Karen Ignagni.

PHAWKER: Where did she come over from before that? Wasn’t she on the other side?

WENDELL POTTER: She was, she was with the AFL-CIO, she was in union in the labor unions.

PHAWKER: How much do you think she’s paid?

WENDELL POTTER: Last I looked over $2 million.

PHAWKER: A year?

WENDELL POTTER: Yeah. She’s very highly compensated. And I think she deserves it because she’s extraordinarily effective, she’s probably the best face for the insurance industry we’ve probably got. At least someone who understands politics and is not only very articulate and looks good on TV and sounds pretty impressive on TV, but she also knows Washington extraordinarily well, she knows Capitol Hill, she knows the White House, regardless of the administration she’s very well connected. There are times when even AHIP doesn’t want to have its fingerprints on something so it will funnel money into, like I said, PR firms or at times into other entities like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or the National Federation Of Independent Business and many times to be so far removed that you want to have your allies who are not perceived to be close to the insurance industry to do your bidding for you, to deliver your talking points. It’s done a lot.

PHAWKER: Can you give me an example of a talking point that is so radioactive that you want to have seven degrees of separation?

WENDELL POTTER: Death panels, for example.

PHAWKER: Did you guys coin that term?

WENDELL POTTER: That was after I left, I’m not sure exactly, the first time I saw anyone use it was Sarah Palin. I’m not sure whether it came from the insurance – I don’t think she coined it, I’m sure it was something that was given to her, it was just an irresistible soundbite.

PHAWKER: Frank Luntz? He’s the wizard. Have you had any direct involvement with him?

WENDELL POTTER: No, at the time I was there he didn’t work directly for Cigna, nor do I recall his being hired to work for the industry. We had other message people and pollsters that we worked with on a regular basis. He was someone, I’m sure that during the trade association would call if necessary but he was not publicly associated.

PHAWKER: Now what Luntz does, is he technically a pollster or a message guy or both?

WENDELL POTTER: It’s messaging and research. The industry has a polling firm on retainer for a long time, a Republican pollster but it’s not Luntz. The industry has hired the same pollster for years, he was John McCain’s pollster when he ran for president last time. He is an expert in messaging, and I mention him in the book — guerilla messaging is what he calls it. You do your research, you test phrases, you test public opinions and see what they are thinking about issues that’s important to your industry. Then you craft messages and then you use focus groups to make sure that you have effective messaging and the right words.

One of my roles was financial communication so it was my responsibility to explain to financial reporters whether the company met Wall St. expectations and if not, why not. So I had to know how the company makes money, how the company operates, how the industry operates, I had to have a pretty deep knowledge of the company and the industry to be able do that. And again, that was another reason why having good relationships with reporters was so key, I spent a lot of time developing good relationships in particular with the Dow Jones reporter, the Reuters reporter, the Bloomberg reporter, the Wall Street Journal reporter because they write for a university which is extraordinarily important for the company, far more important than the media. How did you foster good relationships with these reporters? Take them out to dinner?

WENDELL POTTER: Take them to lunch, take them out to dinner, I’d go to New York a lot and have coffee or lunch with them, take their call immediately when they call me with questions and try to get back to them with a reasonable answer within reasonable time.

PHAWKER: Give them something exclusive every now and then?

WENDELL POTTER: Every now and then yes, absolutely. It’s a dance, you want to make sure that – I wanted to make sure they perceived me as someone who was cooperative, knowledgeable, who would do them a favor every now and then if they were working on a story and were looking to get some information about even a competitor. Sometimes they would call and ask questions. You try to be cooperative, and of course while you are doing that you’re trying to shape the story. You’re trying to make sure that if you want your company to be a part of the story that it’s as positive as possible. So it’s really important to develop these relationships with big reporters like that.

PHAWKER: By and large did you feel you were successful in doing just that?

WENDELL POTTER: Absolutely. You don’t stay in that job for as long as I did unless you’ve got a pretty good track record and have good relationships and delivering. I actually liked that part, I liked working with reporters because I had been a reporter myself. That was one thing that helped make me successful is that I was good at their jobs and I just like reporters. I came to not like what I was having to say, and that’s when I ultimately decided I couldn’t in good conscience keep doing what I was doing, it became more and more difficult to be a spokesman for the company and to maintain those kinds of relationships.

PHAWKER: Let’s go back to the anti-Sicko campaign. Let’s start at the beginning. When did you guys first get an inkling that Michael Moore working on this movie and something had to be done?

WENDELL POTTER: It was years before the movie came out, I think I mention in the book that it was two or three years before the movie’s premiere that he mentioned in some interview that his next movie was going to be on healthcare. Every sector of the healthcare industry trembled. Pharmaceutical companies were certainly convinced that they would be the target of the movie. Insurers were worried that they would be, but Moore was playing it very closely to this during the whole time he was doing his filming. There wasn’t really much information about it at all.

PHAWKER: Corporate America quakes in its boots at the thought of  Michael Moore doing a documentary about the health care system?

WENDELL POTTER: Absolutely. You have to consider the timing of it. The premiere was expected in 2007 and this was just as the presidential campaigns were under way, there was a lot of discussion about healthcare reform and the fear was that this movie could be so successful that it could persuade more people to vote for Democrats, to vote for candidates who would be more favorably inclined to really do significant reform. We were very concerned that it might serve as a kind of tipping point, and our pollsters were already telling us for that the first time since they’d been doing polling in the industry that the majority of Americans were saying it was necessary now for the federal government to have a greater role in our healthcare system than ever before. That concerned everybody in the industry because the last thing you want is to have more government regulation, more government oversight. Certainly there was a fear that more and more politicians would be emboldened to support a single payer system which would be really good to the demise of the health insurance industry as we know it. So that was the ultimate fear. We had our PR firms looking at this constantly and keeping us abreast of any interviews, any articles that appeared about Michael Moore over the course of two years or three years, when even the littlest thing came out we analyzed it, we wanted to see if we could read a something into these reports about the direction of his movie. Again, he played very closely to the point that when it was to appear at the Cannes Film Festival, we didn’t know whether the insurance industry was going to be a target or not. So we sent a young staff member to France to go to the first screening of the movie at the Cannes Film Festival.

PHAWKER: And the report came back that…?

WENDELL POTTER: The report came back that our worst nightmares were true, that the focus of the industry was largely health insurance companies, not much the problems of the uninsured, but the problems that people who had insurance were having with their insurance companies to get the coverage they need, not unlike the Nataline Sarkisyan family. This guy who went to the south of France, went to the Cannes Film Festival called us after the screening and we had a conference call with us and explained what was in the movie and which companies were mentioned, what the focus of the movie was, so we knew we had our work cut out for us. We knew we had to do all we could to discredit Michael Moore.

PHAWKER: Was Cigna named?

WENDELL POTTER: Oh yeah. Early on in the film and more than once. At least two people who were in the movie who had Cigna insurance and for one reason or another were denied coverage for something doctors had recommended. But the spy in France didn’t give us a lot of details, he gave us kind of an overview, he told us almost all the big companies were mentioned, but I needed to know more specifically how Cigna was mentioned. When the movie was to be screened for the first time in the U.S., it was in Sacramento, so I flew from here to Sacramento, got a ticket to the movie screening from a lobbyist in Sacramento and did the same thing as this guy did in France. I went to the back of the theater and took notes.

PHAWKER: Were you wearing a Groucho Marx mustache?

WENDELL POTTER: I wasn’t very recognizable back then, I don’t think Michael Moore would have known me.

PHAWKER: Was Michael Moore there?

WENDELL POTTER: He was there.

PHAWKER: Why was it in Sacramento, why was that the first screening in the U.S.?

WENDELL POTTER: The movie was highly supported by the California Nurses Association, they were very big proponents of the film and the single payer system.

PHAWKER: California Nurses Association, why would they be advocating single payer? What’s in it for them? Just the humaneness?

WENDELL POTTER: It was largely that. Nurses are at the front line of giving care, even more so than doctors. They see day in and day out how insurance companies have really come into control of the healthcare system and the often deathly consequences that has on the patients, not being able to get the care they need and always being very intrusive and second guessing and interfering with care. So they’ve been a leader nationally to try to move towards a single payer system. They’re also much more politically active than a lot of nurse’s organizations. It’s not part of a national organization.

PHAWKER: So getting back to the caper, you slip into the movie and you’re taking notes?

WENDELL POTTER: I was in the very back row way up in back in the dark with my notepad and taking notes I could barely read when I got back to the room. But yeah, I was making as many notes as I could specifically about how Cigna was portrayed.

PHAWKER: Did this cause some soul searching yourself or was it strictly you were there to do a job?

WENDELL POTTER: I began to do some soul searching. This was the month before I went to the remote medical expedition and I was not looking forward to trashing Michael Moore when I saw the movie, I knew that the stories were very possibly legitimate because I had seen examples of stories like that over the course of time so I knew he was characterizing the system very accurately. I also had been studying other healthcare systems and I thought he had done a very good job of characterizing those systems. So I thought it was a well done movie. I also thought that because it was Michael Moore he would be fairly easy to demonize and that we would probably be very successful in getting people to turn against him and decide his movie wasn’t worth seeing, and that was what we set out to do.

PHAWKER: Let’s talk about how you did that a little more specifically.

WENDELL POTTER: We worked with AHIP, they were kind of coordinating the effort for all the insurance companies. They hired a PR firm, APCO Worldwide, which set up a front group that was funded by both insurers and the drug companies, Healthcare America and that was the entity that was sending out press releases, sending statements to Capitol Hill, disseminating talking points to members of Congress they felt could be relied upon to trash the movie, and they had lobbyists that would go on the Hill and essentially intimidate Democrats in particular by saying, “Look you don’t want to say anything positive about this movie, the implications being if you do, you won’t get any money from the industry and very possibly you would see that the money go towards an opponent of yours or an opponent might materialize.” So that’s how they operate, through intimidation but also working with their reliable and friendly members of Congress, to equip them with talking points and to work with the media. The PR firm has very good connections with the media. I remember all the ginned up controversy surrounding Fahrenheit 9/11 and how loudly opponents of the movie were shouting it down before it even opened. I remember how they framed the movie as ludicrous, divorced from reality and possibly unpatriotic etc etc, and five years later the perspective of that movie became the conventional wisdom in this country,  it was what The Great Middle thought about all that.

WENDELL POTTER: I think the anti-Sicko campaign really picked up from where  the campaign against Fahrenheit 9/11. Michael Moore was already someone that had been demonized by the right and a lot of politicians, so that work had already begun. Now the message was, “Well, here’s his latest attempt to undermine this country and this guy is not someone who shares our values.” So we build on that. It wasn’t a hard sell, there were a lot of members of Congress who were quite willing to be the industry’s shills.

PHAWKER: So it’s safe to say that the louder they denounce your documentary, the closer you are to the truth.

WENDELL POTTER: Absolutely. The industry knew it had to do this very carefully, it didn’t want to draw so much attention to the movie that people would want to see it out of curiosity. There’s a risk there, it’s kind of a surgical PR campaign if you will. The target was Capitol Hill.

PHAWKER: Why was that? Because you didn’t want anybody in Congress persuaded by this film?

WENDELL POTTER: Absolutely, you wanted your allies were equipped with talking points, to make sure they didn’t even think about saying anything positive about the movie, that was the first objective. Then to those who might be marginal, say blue dog Democrats, you want to make sure that they too were not likely to not say anything positive and to try to get people to say ‘This guy’s off base, what he’s proposing is socialism, socialized medicine and we don’t want that in this country.’ That’s what you wanted to do. I guess the biggest threat was in Washington, we didn’t want this threat to affect thinking on Capitol Hill, as lawmakers were moving towards a real debate on healthcare reform. There wasn’t a visible public campaign that the public saw. There were some letters to the editor, there were some op-eds that were placed, but it was not a very visible campaign. Part of what you want to do is to influence the influencers, as PR people do because you can’t really do it very effectively with the modest budget that we had and influence everybody. So you wanted to try to get thought leaders to say things bad about it or to question it.

PHAWKER: This reminds me of the spoken word album Ronald Reagan made in the 60s warning that Medicare was socialized medicine that was then passed around for people to play in their living rooms, to have coffee clatches and listen to it and discuss. We’ve come a long way since then.

WENDELL POTTER: We have and we haven’t. The same techniques are used, the technology is different, but some of the tactics are very similar.

PHAWKER: In the main, the industry perception is that the Democrats are sympathetic to healthcare reform and the GOP is not?

WENDELL POTTER: Yeah, if you’re an insurance guy you can rely on almost every Republican to side with you. They’ve invested heavily into Republican campaigns over the years, they’ve also contributed to a lot of Democrats because they know they have to. If you’ve got Congress controlled by Democrats you’ve got to get to the right people. That’s why Max Baucus had received at that time the most campaign contribution of any member of Congress from

PHAWKER: Well he was the head of the Finance Committee.

WENDELL POTTER: He was heading the Finance Committee which is the most important committee in Congress. House committees were important but his committee was the most important committee.

PHAWKER: It just blows my mind, it’s just a hair away from outright bribery.

WENDELL POTTER: Oh, absolutely, it’s just legalized bribery.

PHAWKER: Or extortion really, you’re threatening them.

WENDELL POTTER: And that’s why things will never change in this country until the public comes to understand exactly what’s going on. It’s extortion, it’s bribery, it’s intimidation, because of the enormous power and influence Congress members have. That’s why we’re in gridlock on Capitol Hill right now, it’s why it’s so partisan and nothing gets done, and it will always be that way.

PHAWKER: I can’t even buy into the Democratic-Republican divide anymore, I know there is a hair’s difference between them but to me they’re both bought and sold by corporate America.

WENDELL POTTER: You’re right. And the thing is I’m sure that there are members of Congress in both parties that go there with some purity and expectations that they can make a difference. But the public is under the misimpression that Washington is controlled by political parties, that the president has a significant power – he has significant power but special interests run that town and to a large extent the members of Congress are just puppets, and to a large extent the president is too. I see this every day, as I’m monitoring the implementation of health care reform, how influential the special interests are in directing largely how the regulations are written and how far they can go. But you’re right, a young progressive Democrat might be elected but will pretty soon come to understand this is the way this town works. Lobbyists are so influential that if you’re newly elected that means possibly your seat is vulnerable the next time you’re up for re-election. You’re likely to be willing to accept campaign contributions because it costs so much to win.

PHAWKER: As soon as they get elected they have to start collecting campaign money, it’s a very short cycle, two years for representatives and six years for senators.

WENDELL POTTER: You have to have campaign cash, these people come with checkbooks open and you know too that if you don’t please them that they’re going to take their money elsewhere. They learn pretty quickly how things are done.

PHAWKER: Presumably this has been the case for quite some time, if not from the beginning in some form or another, do you agree with that? Or have things accelerated in the course of your career?

WENDELL POTTER: We’re back to the Gilded Age again, we’re back to the point where corporations have incredible power, that’s a lot different. I’ve seen a shift in who runs the healthcare system, we were talking about Ronald Reagan, the AMA was behind that and they were behind all the efforts in the early years to block healthcare reform but they’ve been outgunned. The most influential lobbyists are the healthcare, health insurance lobbyists, the pharmaceutical lobbyists, hospitals.

PHAWKER: Getting back to Sicko, how does this play out? Was it a successful campaign? Were you happy with how things played out for you guys? POTTER: We were happy because we monitored the box office numbers every week, we got a report every week on how the movie was doing and we could obviously see, as any movie does, it begins to trail off through time. We saw its influence was waning.

PHAWKER: Although you have to be concerned this day and age, the DVD, the after theater viewing is actually far more significant.

WENDELL POTTER: As far as we could tell there was not an organized effort to get the DVD into more homes, it was not nearly what it could have been. So the influence of the movie began to wane very quickly. It was talked about for a while, pretty soon it wasn’t in the movies and it was a while before the DVD came out. When it did there was a little bit of a blip of interest in it but it never really came back as a big threat.

PHAWKER: Who are these congressmen that can be relied on the stand up for the healthcare industry and badmouth any talk of reform?

WENDELL POTTER: The entire Republican party. Everybody who’s got an “R.” John Boehner, he’s certainly been in bed with the industry for a long time. Zach Wamp was. Marsha Blackburn, a congresswoman from middle-West Tennessee has long been a staunch ally and regular water carrier for the industry.

PHAWKER: Arlen Specter?

WENDELL POTTER: Arlen Specter was a pretty reliable ally of the industry but he had an independent streak, he wasn’t always. Now he played a very key role towards the end of the healthcare reform in siding with the insurers as did Joe Lieberman. If it weren’t for Lieberman we would have probably had a public option.


WENDELL POTTER: Thank Joe for that. Singlehandedly.

PHAWKER: Really?

WENDELL POTTER: The industry knew that he was a go-to guy in Connecticut. A lot of insurance companies were based there, Cigna has a large operation and now its headquarters is there. They knew Joe was someone they could get to and they got to him.

PHAWKER: Getting back you Sicko, in the end you wind up apologizing to Michael Moore on national television.

WENDELL POTTER: I met Michael Moore. I actually went to the second screening of the movie in Michigan. I flew there because I had seen the movie in, I was curious to see if it might change anything, if it might be the editing, I just wanted to see it again to make sure my head was right. So I flew to Detroit, rented a car and drove to Bel-Air, actually met him there and had my picture taken with him. He didn’t know who I was, I didn’t tell him who I was, but I still have that picture.

PHAWKER: This was when Alex was with you?


PHAWKER: Alex is your son, who is a contributor to Phawker. He’s a fan of Michael Moore, obviously it’s a thrill to get to meet him. Now this is a movie about reform and the need for change, and Alex’s father’s job is to maintain the status quo. How do you square that circle?

WENDELL POTTER: I know I was telling Alex at that time that I was not happy, that I was going to have to be a part of the effort to discredit the movie. It was this time in particular that I was beginning to really question why in the hell I was still doing what I was doing. That was, I think, when my crisis of conscience really began.

PHAWKER: Moving forward, you’ve resigned from Cigna and you’ve published Deadly Spin, and you and Michael Moore are on Countdown With Keith Olberman…?

WENDELL POTTER: It was one of the most memorable things I’ve ever done. I was in a studio here in Philadelphia and he was in New York so I was not in the same room with him, but we just had a personal conversation almost oblivious to the fact that we were on TV. It was almost like I was talking to someone on the phone. I just almost forgot the camera was on and it was on national TV. Olbermann surprisingly said very little, he sat back and let the conversation go. It lasted far longer than the producers had told us to expect it to. So we just had a conversation, I apologized for the role I played in discrediting the movie, he was talking about how he appreciated what I had done in confirming a lot of what he suspected, no one had ever confirmed it before. It was an amazing time.


L-R: Alex Potter, Michael Moore, Wendell Potter

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