Posted by: David Offutt | March 16, 2011

Sunshine Week and Offutt’s Law: Wendell Potter and Health Insurance Reform

The week of March 13-19 is Sunshine Week. It was initiated in 2005 and has since been held annually “to promote dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.” The public’s right to know is also an important facet of my own “Offutt’s Law: the more important it is for you to know something, the less likely it will be volunteered to you.” Fortunately, we’ve always had individuals who at great personal and professional risk have decided that the public’s right to know was too important to remain silent.

Bernstein and Woodward exposed the illegal, clandestine activities of the Nixon White House with the help of an anonymous insider.

Many of us recall one such hero from the Nixon Era whose identity many of us feared we would never learn: Mark Felt, a deputy associate director of the FBI. Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had a secret “garage freak” that they called Deep Throat who helped them expose the Watergate Scandal. The Nixon administration corrupted our election system and planned to use the agencies of the federal government to destroy Nixon’s “political enemies.” Deep Throat told them that it was incredible: just about everybody was involved; the criminality reached throughout the administration.

Mark Felt of the FBI was Deep Throat

Mark Felt, at 91and in failing health, ended the mystery in 2005 and announced that he had been Deep Throat. It may have been braver had he gone public in 1972-74, but it also may have been suicidal. Nevertheless, many campaign finance reforms were enacted, at least in part, as a result of his patriotic whistle blowing. Predictably, the Republican Party immediately began trying to get rid of those reforms. Tragically, in the January 2010 Citizens United ruling, the five Republican justices on the U.S. Supreme Court did it for them and overturned most of them. Unidentified corporate contributions will no doubt determine our future elections.

In the spirit of the people’s right to know, I want to recognize Wendell Potter, a courageous individual who over the last three years helped bring attention to the need for health insurance reform. Sadly, just like with Watergate, many voters didn’t want to know about the problems of health insurance for profit and/or didn’t want others to know about them. But thanks to Mr. Potter and others like him, we know that Congress was informed and could not ignore the need to act.

Wendell Potter, a health insurance company insider, exposed industry tactics and advocated reform.

Wendell Potter was a vice president of corporate communications at CIGNA, the 4th largest health insurance company in the U.S. He resigned in 2008 after months of suffering from a guilty conscience. In July 2007 he had witnessed a traveling free clinic in rural Virginia where hundreds of people who couldn’t afford health insurance met with doctors in animal stalls. Mr. Potter knew that there was no reason that the United States could not do better than that.  He became a whistleblower on his and other companies’ tactics of protecting their profits ahead of protecting their clients.

Michael Moore’s documentary film “Sicko” was falsely discredited by the health insurance industry.

One of his jobs at CIGNA had been to discredit Michael Moore’s movie “Sicko” (June 2007) before it was ever released.  He said that the entire industry was terrified at what people would learn if they saw the movie. Mr. Potter’s job was to convince the public that Moore’s film was inaccurate and/or unsubstantiated so that they either wouldn’t go to see the movie or not believe it. He said that he succeeded in muting the impact of the film because he and others like him were good at their jobs. As to the accuracy of the film “Sicko,” he said on “Bill Moyers’ Journal” (Aug. 2009) that Michael Moore “hit the nail on the head.” He publicly apologized to Mr. Moore when they both appeared on MSNBC’s “Countdown” (Nov. 2010), and Moore graciously accepted the apology.

Mr. Potter testified before Congress (June 2009) and encouraged the creation of a public health insurance option to compete with private insurers. Any bill without it would continue to allow Wall Street-managed insurers to monopolize the industry, motivated solely by profits. Because of compromises made to get Republicans and conservative Democrats to support it, the Affordable Heath Care Act does not have the public option – but Republicans still didn’t vote for it.

The irony is that the final reform bill was based on a plan that was implemented in Massachusetts by its former Republican governor Mitt Romney. Another irony is that the individual mandate that requires everyone to be covered so as to keep costs at a minimum was a Republican proposal back when Bill Clinton was trying to get reform in 1993-94. That Republican proposal is now their main grievance against President Barack Obama’s reform program. Appropriately, the Republicans have been compared to Lucy in the “Peanuts” comic strip. She would hold the football for Charlie Brown to kick but pull it away at the last second.

The insurance companies wanted the individual mandate that is in the reform bill. What they don’t want are all those reform conditions: no one can be denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions; no one can be dropped from coverage when he or she most needs it during a lengthy illness; children can get coverage until age 26 under their parents’ plans; the notorious “donut hole” will be filled so that Medicare prescription drug plans will no longer have gaps in their coverage; and much more.

Also, you may recall the imaginary “death panels” that celebrities like Sarah Palin talked about to create opposition to reform. Most lies usually have some connection to truth. The reform bill actually prevents “death panels” being used by private insurance companies to terminate a patient’s coverage when costs start cutting into their bottom line. It was cheaper to hire investigators to find some reason to cancel a client’s coverage than it was to pay for the client’s health care.

Hopefully, the “death panels” in some state governments will also be ended. Arizona’s Republican governor Jan Brewer and her Republican legislature decided that saving the lives of 98 patients who were on a waiting list to receive life-saving transplants was too expensive. Their victims were notified that they had been removed from the list, effectively telling them to die and get out of the way. Two of them have already passed away.

I’m writing this now because, currently, many Republican governors and/or Republican state legislatures are doing everything they can to prevent the American people from receiving these long-awaited insurance reforms. Those few in the upper 2 % income bracket, those with full-time jobs that include insurance benefits, and retirees who are content with their Medicare and other pension programs may fear any change whatsoever. However, even they should want the reforms for everyone else. That’s the kind of people we should be. The Affordable Health Care Act was made possible with help of people like Wendell Potter.

by David Offutt
A version of this essay was published March 16, 2011, in the El Dorado News-Times as a Guest Column.


  1. Good essay, David. It’s good to hear that the local paper is publishing your work again.

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