Between the Lines Q&A

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for release Jan. 12, 2010

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Insurance Lobby Shaped Weakened
Senate Health Care Reform Bill

 RealAudio  MP3

Interview with Wendell Potter,
former health insurance executive,
conducted by Scott Harris

' healthcare

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is poised to pass healthcare reform legislation before Christmas Day, having overcome the threat of a Republican filibuster by mustering all 60 votes in the Democratic caucus. But the compromises made to achieve what some are calling a landmark accomplishment, were high. Many progressive activists and some legislators expressed disgust at the concessions made to win the support of conservative Democratic Sens. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Joe Lieberman, Independent of Connecticut.

Under pressure from party dissidents, the majority were forced to scrap original provisions such as a public, government-run health insurance option, expansion of Medicare to cover uninsured Americans ages 55 to 64, and removing anti-trust exemptions for the heath insurance industry. If as expected, the Senate passes their $871 billion healthcare bill, that legislation must then be reconciled with the measure passed by the House in November , which includes a public option, withdraws anti-trust protection and pays for the program by taxing the rich.

Between the Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Wendell Potter, the former head of communications with Cigna Insurance company, who now serves as a senior fellow on Health Care with the non-profit group Center for Media and Democracy. Applying his 20 years' experience in the health insurance industry, Potter assesses the winners and losers in the Senate health care battle and the value of health reform legislation shaped by corporate lobbyists that may be signed into law early in 2010.

WENDELL POTTER: I wasn't surprised to see the bill shaping up as it did. I knew that the health insurance industry would be pulling out all the stops to try to shape it as best it could to be as helpful to the industry or at least not cause it any harm. I think that's why you're seeing that the investors of these companies have been pretty much rewarding the companies and the strategy to do what was accomplished, and that is to kill the public option, which was job number one. The industry did not want to have a government-run entity that would compete with them, and number two, they didn't want to have any onerous regulation on the industry.

So they accomplished that. There is, however, some very good regulation in the bill. So I think that while they won significant victory in some regards -- chiefly in killing the public option -- I think that we'll see that over the course of time, if the regulations do stay in the bill, and if they are enforced, we'll have a different kind of insurance market.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Generally speaking, as an insurance executive yourself, what kind of stops did the industry pull out here in terms of influence Sens. Lincoln, Nelson, Landrieu, and Lieberman?

WENDELL POTTER: Well, they influenced legislation and lawmakers in three different ways. One is money, through campaign contributions and we've certainly seen that happen over time, so that helps to open the door to get the lobbyists in the door and to be able to talk to these folks. Another is relationships. The industry has hired former members of Congress as well as people who used to work for them as staff members. So that's another way that they've been able to make sure that their points of view are heard and heeded.

And the other is ideology. The health insurance industry is always aligned with the more conservative members of Congress. They've worked those relationships to make sure that they are identified as on the right. Over the years, they've really solidified support among the Republicans. So, that's what we're seeing, the workings of results of many years of investing in these lawmakers through campaign contributions and the hiring of former associates of these current law members and their staff members and ideology.

BETWEEN THE LINES: There are many people, including myself, who look at this horrendous situation for many decades here with private health insurance, and believe that health care should really be a human right, and that the for-profit sector entering this part of the economy to cover people's medical care really is wrong, that it shouldn't be a for-profit business. What are your thoughts on that as someone from the healthcare industry?

WENDELL POTTER: Well, I do agree with that. I think that we've seen that the for-profit model does not work right. Many of the countries in Europe that have achieved universal coverage do have competing health insurance companies that provide coverage. They're not typically single-payer systems. The distinction though, is that they're nonprofit. They don't allow for-profit companies to operate their insurance plans and it makes a big difference, because you have in this country, the interests of the shareholders are so different than the needs of the consumers. It's why you've seen the practices of these health insurance companies canceling policies and purging small businesses from their rolls. They want to get rid of the riskiest customers and the riskiest businesses that are their customers, and avoid taking anyone who has a history of illness.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Well, just a final question for you, Wendell Potter, and that is, we've heard Howard Dean's criticism of this Senate bill. He's been quoted as saying, really if this (bill) is what carries the day in the House and Senate, we should kill it and start over again. What's your feeling about that. Should it be fixed or should it be nixed? And what provisions are most important in your mind to retain through this conference dialogue between the House and Senate and what law might end up on the president's desk to sign?

WENDELL POTTER: Well, I appreciate your asking that. I know Gov. Dean -- he and I were actually on a conference call -- he invited me to join him with some journalists and bloggers last Friday. And I agree with him to a significant extent that the initial version of the Senate bill -- I feel like he did -- was so deficient that the House version is the one that should be passed by Congress.

But I think what they call the manager's amendment has improved this Senate bill considerably. And there are some important features. First, it creates these exchanges or this framework called the exchange in which people who don't have insurance at their workplace can get it in the same kind of way as part of a group. That's very important. And insurance companies will not be able to discriminate. They can't keep using pre-existing conditions to bar people from getting insurance.

This legislation also would make available hundreds of billions of dollars over the next several years in federal help to allow people to get coverage that they need if they can't afford it. They'll be able to get subsidies to help them pay for coverage. The House bill is stronger in many ways and I hope that the final bill that does go to the president has some of the strongest features of both bills. But I think that we need to get this legislation done, we can't afford to kill it, if we do, it will be many years before we have this opportunity again, in my view. There are so many people who need help right now in this country; I've met so many of them in my travels across the country, that I think it's irresponsible to think that we might miss this opportunity.

Contact the Center for Media and Democracy at (608) 260-9713 or read Potter's blog at

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Scott Harris is a producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 45 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine,Between The Lines for the week ending Jan. 1, 2010. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Anna Manzo and Scott Harris.

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