ThinkProgress spoke with Wendell Potter, a former VP of communications at health insurance giant CIGNA, about exactly how insurance companies derail reform and preserve the status quo. Working in public relations for CIGNA, Potter had a direct role in multiple campaigns in the past to minimize public outrage at insurance company abuses, defeat legislation aimed at regulating insurers, and the massive effort to discredit Michael Moore and his movie SiCKO. In addition to enormous amounts of money spent in direct lobbying and campaign contributions, Potter spelled out precisely how insurance companies have prepared to defeat meaningful reform.
Planned well before this year, insurance company CEOs, like Potter’s former boss at CIGNA H. Edward Hadway, formed a group called the Strategic Communications Committee to develop effective messages and strategy for the industry. Organized through AHIP, the lobbying front for insurance companies, the committee would work with large public relations companies to devise a two-pronged, “duplicitous campaign.” Because insurance companies suffer from low public approval, Potter said, the industry would present itself as “for reform” to the public, yet at the same time label proponents of meaningful reform as “extreme.” The public campaign is for the most part positive, and largely delivered by industry representatives like AHIP chief lobbyist Karen Ignagni. Potter noted:
It’s really a duplicitous PR campaign. They will talk about, in broad terms, how supportive they are of health care reform, but they will be working behind the scenes to kill very, very crucial parts of reform legislation like the public option.
Potter then explained how insurers would use a variety of front groups, set up by PR companies like APCO, to advance a hidden attack campaign. The “dirty” campaign involved feeding talking points to right-wing media, like Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. It also includes the creation of front groups to run negative advertisements about reform and mobilize anti-reform “grassroots” groups. Finally, insurers would coordinate with, and sometimes fund, conservative think-tanks to produce academic-appearing reports to advance their cause. Leaked memos from the insurance companies — regarding the campaign against Moore’s SiCKO movie — not only support Potter’s assertions, but specifically describe every step of this process.
The Charm Campaign:
Media — Working to charm the public, industry pays for ads to kill the public option, while sending CEOs on TV to argue for limited reform. AHIP, the lobbying trade group for the health insurance companies, is spending millions on television ads. Indeed, health insurance executives like Ron Williams are constantly on television making misleading claims about their efforts at reform.
Congress — Working to charm the public, industry lobbyists make false promises to the public and Congress. AHIP chief lobbyist Karen Ignagni regularly appears on television to make promises for reform. However, individual health insurance CEOs have categorically rejected the notion that they will abide by Ignagni’s overtures.
Think Tanks — Working to charm the public, industry-financed think-tanks churn out reports misleading the public about legislation. The Lewin Group, owned by insurer UnitedHealth, has been cited by anti-health reform advertisements and Republican lawmakers like Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) in an effort to kill the public option. The Galen Institute, funded by other healthcare industry corporations, also provides fodder for anti-reform arguments.
Groups — Working to charm the public, industry coerces employees and customers to attend town halls with talking points to limit and derail reform. The insurance industry has hired the same astroturf lobbying firms used by tobacco companies to push employees to attend town halls. In addition, companies like WellPoint have sent false talking points to their customers, while urging them to lobby Congress. Humana recently sent a fear-mongering mailer to senior citizens, which directs them to sign up for the insurer campaign website run by the tobacco lobbying firm.
The Dirty Campaign:
Media — Working to kill all reform behind the scenes, industry provides talking points and scare tactics to a variety of right-wing media. As Potter explains, insurance companies routinely employ PR firms like APCO to distribute talking points to outlets such as Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and The Washington Times.
Congress — Working to kill all reform behind the scenes, industry works with partisan lawmakers to obstruct, water-down, and kill reform bills. According to a new report, fourteen major health insurers and their industry association “flexed their political muscle to the tune of $2.5 million per month” to lobby on health reform this year. Health insurance companies have forged close ties to lawmakers. For example, Sen. Mike Enzi’s (R-WY) top health adviser is now a lobbyist for WellPoint. Indeed, Enzi has admitted his role is largely dedicated to obstructing reform.
Think Tanks — Working to kill all reform behind the scenes, industry coordinates with ideological allies on the right to produce reports meant to kill reform. The Pacific Research Institute, set up originally to support the tobacco industry’s dubious claims about its products, has pushed multiple lies about health reform. The leaked 2007 memos from the health insurance industry show how think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute, Heritage, and Cato were used to push an anti-health reform agenda. Similarly, AEI, Heritage, and Cato have promoted distortions about current reform legislation.
Front Groups — Working to kill all reform behind the scenes, industry funnels money through PR firms to various front groups which in turn run ads, storm town halls, organize anti-reform rallies. UnitedHealth was recently caught sending their employees to radical tea party protests. Front groups for major corporations, like Americans for Prosperity, have mobilized a variety of “grassroots” events to attack reform and spread fear about health care proposals. AFP played a central role in the insurance industry-led effort to discredit Michael Moore in 2007. Similarly, new front groups like Conservatives for Patients’ Rights and Coalition to Protect Patients’ Rights, a front group purporting to represent doctors, have sprung up to oppose health reform. As ThinkProgress has noted, CPPR is run by the infamous DC lobbying firm DCI Group, a firm that has set up multiple front groups in the past.
Research and interview of Wendell Potter conducted by Lee Fang, video produced by Victor Zapanta, and graphics by Evan Hensleigh