Ex-Insurance Exec: Industry "Playbook" At Work Against Health Reform

Ex-Insurance Exec: Industry "Playbook" At Work Against Health Reform

The latest wave of attacks on health care reform are straight from the insurance-company "playbook," a former industry vice president told reporters at the Capitol Wednesday.

"I know from years as an industry P.R. executive how effective insurers can be using scare tactics to turn public opinion against any reforms that affect profitability," said Wendell Potter, who ran corporate communications for health insurance giant CIGNA until last year. "This year, you can rest assured the industry is up to the same dirty tricks."

That's not to say insurers are sending angry citizens to town hall meetings, but Potter said that through "shills" and "buzzwords" they are indirectly responsible for much of the anti-reform "lies and disinformation" dominating the current debate.

"Americans should realize that when they hear isolated stories of long waiting lines or wait 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," he said. "They're masters of linguistics. They know hot-button issues. They know buzzwords that get people excited."

If anyone knows the playbook, it's Potter, who helped oversee CIGNA's opposition to health care reforms from the Clinton era forward. Since the early nineties, he said, insurers have publicly espoused support for reform while privately funneling patients' premium dollars to front groups working to turn Congress and public opinion against any change. Potter said the industry funded the Health Leadership Council's crusade against Clintoncare and helped form the Coalition for Affordable Quality Health Care and the Health Benefits Coalition, the latter billed as a broad group of business interests, to fight the Patients' Bill of Rights.

Stirring up grassroots support was a big piece of that strategy, Potter said. P.R. firms would reach out to groups like the Christian Coalition and Family Research Council, asking their members to write angry letters to Congress and make a scene at press conferences.

After Clinton-era reform efforts went down in flames, the health insurance industry made no effort to reduce coverage denials for preexisting conditions or other reforms they told Congress they supported, said Potter. More recently, he said, insurers used P.R. vehicles like APCO -- a powerful D.C. firm best known for fronting Phillip Morris' pseudo-scientific defense of smoking back in the nineties -- to try and damage the credibility and limit the influence of Michael Moore's 2007 documentary "Sicko".

Insurers have been effective at maintaining "Wall Street-run health care," Potter said. A strong public option is necessary to change that model, he said -- otherwise, the final bill "might as well be called 'the Insurance Industry Profit and Protection Act.'"

The strength of the public option is likely to make for the toughest fight on the House floor. Conservative Blue Dog Democrats in the Energy and Commerce Committee derailed negotiations for nearly two weeks before emerging with a weaker version of the public option included in bills from the Ways and Means and Energy and Commerce committees.

House Rules Committee Chair Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) joined Potter at the press conference Wednesday afternoon, and said staffers on the respective committees are currently working to combine the three bills into one. Slaughter dodged the question of which public option will emerge in the final bill, but noted that she herself hopes to make use of it, as she currently relies on her husband's health insurance from Kodak rather than the generous plan available to members of Congress. "I think the public option is key," she said.

The House will have time to thoroughly judge the final bill, Slaughter said, promising that there would be no repeat of the abrupt passage of climate change legislation late on the night immediately before the July 4 recess.

Can Congress get legislation to President Obama's desk sometime in September?

"That would be nice. Of course, there's no bill without the Senate," she said, pausing briefly to search for words. "The ... well, the Senate."

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