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“Push Michael Moore Off a Cliff”: Health Insurance Whistleblower Wendell Potter Details How the Industry Attacked Michael Moore’s Film Sicko

StoryNovember 17, 2010
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When Academy Award-winning film director Michael Moore announced he would be making a documentary about the American healthcare system in 2004, it put the health insurance industry on high alert. One person who immediately went on the offensive was Wendell Potter, who at the time was the chief spokesperson for insurance giant CIGNA. Last year, Potter became the industry’s most prominent whistleblower. We speak to Potter about his role in attacking Michael Moore’s film Sicko and the movement for a single-payer healthcare system. [includes rush transcript]

“We felt that this movie would have such an impact that it would really pave the way for legislation to be passed that could be very detrimental to the insurance industry. So it was very important for the insurers to attack this movie as fiercely as possible,” Wendell Potter said. “We developed a very, very sophisticated communications campaign to make sure that people saw him [Moore] as a Marxist, as a socialist, and that he was going to be destroying the American Dream.” This is Part 2 of our extensive interview with Wendell Potter. Click here for Part 1 of the interview.

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StoryJul 16, 2009“They Dump the Sick to Satisfy Investors”: Insurance Exec Turned Whistleblower Wendell Potter Speaks Out Against Healthcare Industry
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We end today’s show with part two of our conversation with the chief spokesperson for CIGNA, before that, for Humana, who spoke with us yesterday on Democracy Now! His name is Wendell Potter. In part two, he continues his conversation about the insurance industry’s targeting of the Academy Award-winning filmmaker Michael Moore when he announced he would be making a documentary about the American healthcare system, the film, of course, called Sicko. One of the key figures behind the campaign to discredit him was Wendell Potter. He talks about the policy on the part of all the insurance companies in dealing with Michael Moore.

WENDELL POTTER: We were very scared. And we knew that we would have to develop a very sophisticated and expensive campaign to turn people away from the idea of universal care. We were afraid that this might really galvanize public opinion. We were told by our pollsters, in a meeting that was held just days after the premier of the movie, that for the first time ever since they had been polling, that people were —- a majority of people were in favor of much greater government involvement in our healthcare system. So that -—

AMY GOODMAN: Who were your pollsters?

WENDELL POTTER: McInturff, Public Opinion Strategies, Bill McInturff, who’s a well-known Republican strategist and who went on to be John McCain’s chief pollster. He’s been a pollster for the insurance industry for probably two decades. And he had been tracking public opinion for all these years. And this really scared the insurers, the executives. We were all concerned about that, because we felt that this movie would be — have such an impact that it would really pave the way for legislation to be passed that could be very detrimental to the insurance industry. So it was very important for the insurers to attack this movie as fiercely as possible.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what was the grassroots strategy, if you had one, as the movie came out in the United States?

WENDELL POTTER: Well, one key component was to fund a front group, and that is something that I write about quite a bit in the book, about how special interests, and the insurance industry, in particular, will use premium dollars to funnel thousands and thousands, if not millions, of dollars to big PR firms to set up fake grassroots organizations — astroturf, as we call it — and front groups. And in this case, there was a front group that was set up called Health Care America, and the sole purpose for it to be set up was to attack Michael Moore and to attack the notion of a single-payer system in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: And who were the people who populated Health Care America?

WENDELL POTTER: There were just a couple of people. There was a woman. I think her name was —- I can’t remember her name. Sarah Berk, I think, was her name. But the media contact for it was a guy named Bill Pierce, who I had known and worked with in the past. He used to be a PR guy for Blue Cross/Blue Shield Association. At that time, he was in the public relations firm APCO Worldwide. He was listed as a media contact, and if you called his number, you would have reached him at his desk at APCO Worldwide. It didn’t have any substance. It was just a -—

AMY GOODMAN: What is APCO Worldwide?

WENDELL POTTER: It is a very, very big PR firm that was started several years ago by a big Washington law firm, Arnold & Porter. The A and P is Arnold & Porter, and they were defending —


WENDELL POTTER: Yeah, and they were defending tobacco companies. So they felt that they needed to have help in the court of public opinion, as well as in the courtroom.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did Health Care America — who did they say they were?

WENDELL POTTER: They said they were representing consumers. And —

AMY GOODMAN: Did anyone expose this at the time?

WENDELL POTTER: No. No one did.

AMY GOODMAN: Did anyone have them on to counter what Michael Moore had to say on television, radio or quote them in the newspaper?

WENDELL POTTER: No. In fact — and I’ve done a search recently just to find out how they were covered, and they were never exposed.

AMY GOODMAN: But were they quoted?

WENDELL POTTER: Oh, absolutely. They were quoted extensively. They sent out press releases. And they were given status as a legitimate organization, even by the New York Times.

AMY GOODMAN: In what article?

WENDELL POTTER: There was an article that the New York Times wrote as a kind of a review of Sicko, not really a review but just a story about the movie actually premiering in the U.S. in June of 2007. And the New York Times story quoted the Health Care America spokesman as saying that this represented a move toward socialism. And there was not an — apparently not an attempt on the part of the reporter, or any reporter that I saw, to disclose the fact that this was funded largely by the insurance industry.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to another clip of Sicko, of Michael Moore’s film, that they also feared, that they sent one lucky staff member, employee from CIGNA, to the Riviera to watch the film festival where Michael Moore got a standing ovation for 15 minutes, and then have a corporate conference call to report back on what they saw. This is Sicko.

MICHAEL MOORE: This guy broke his ankle. How much will this cost him? He’ll have some huge bill when he’s done, right?

NHS HOSPITAL ADMINISTRATIVE WORKER: Here, no. Just everything is free.

MICHAEL MOORE: I’m asking about hospital charges, and you’re laughing.

Even with insurance, there’s bound to be a bill somewhere.

What did they charge you for that baby?

NEW FATHER: No, no, no. Everything was on NHS.


NEW FATHER: It’s not America.

MICHAEL MOORE: So this is where people come to pay their bill when they’re done staying in the hospital.

NHS CASHIER: No, this is the NHS hospital, so you don’t pay that bill.

MICHAEL MOORE: Why does it say “cashier” here if people don’t have to pay a bill?

NHS HOSPITAL ADMINISTRATIVE WORKER: …place, you have — it just means get the traffic expenses reimbursed.

MICHAEL MOORE: So in British hospitals, instead of money going into the cashier’s window, money comes out.

[from Democracy Now!, mooreon”>6/18/07]

MICHAEL MOORE: Yeah, they look at me like I’m from Mars when I’m asking the Brits, you know, how much they paid for this, that or whatever.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Michael Moore. Let’s talk about how we arrived at the system we did in this country.

MICHAEL MOORE: Well, you know, my grandfather was a country doctor, actually. He was from Canada. He went to medical school in the late 1800s, which was a year then. You know, it’s pretty much what they knew back then. They could teach it in a year. And so, the little village where, you know, I was raised, because my mom was from there, too, because he was there, you know, he was paid with eggs and milk and chickens and things like that. He didn’t do it to make any big money. They didn’t make big money then. They were comfortable — the local doctor — but they weren’t the rich man in the community.

We got away from the concept of treating people because it was the right thing to do. The nuns ran the hospital that I was born in. The nuns weren’t doing this to turn profit and invest in Wall Street. You know, I mean, they did it because they thought that was their duty to serve God and to serve mankind by opening hospitals and delivering babies. We’re a long ways from that now. Somewhere we let profit and greed enter into this.

And in the film, I peg a certain date when the HMOs really got their start. And I got very lucky. I had a 23-year-old researcher in my office who worked on the film, who was actually someone I believe that was recommended by Jeremy Scahill, so there’s a Democracy Now! connection to this moment in the movie. But he found this Watergate tape — has nothing to do with Watergate, it’s one of the Nixon tapes — at the Archives, National Archives, where Nixon and Ehrlichman are discussing whether or not to support this HMO concept. And Ehrlichman says to Nixon, “You’re going to love this, because this is private enterprise. This isn’t like some freebie thing.” Nixon goes, “Oh, I like that. Tell me about it.” And then Ehrlichman says, “Well, this is how it’s going to work, these HMOs. They’re going to make more money by providing less care. The less care they give them, the patients, the more money the company makes.” Nixon goes, “Ooh, not bad!” And it’s all there on tape.

AMY GOODMAN: Wendell, you were laughing as Michael’s describing the Ehrlichman tape, the Nixon-Ehrlichman-Haldeman. You know this tape.

WENDELL POTTER: I do know that tape, and it was, I think, a great find —

AMY GOODMAN: Did anyone ever tell you you look a little like John Haldeman?

WENDELL POTTER: Thank you, maybe. I don’t know. But it was important for that conversation — important was really — that conversation was very important because, at that time, Ted Kennedy was trying to get legislation enacted that would have been a Medicare-for-all system, in which we would have had a single-payer system in this country. So Nixon was desperate to find some private enterprise solution that could be used a counter to what Ted Kennedy was trying to do at that time. It’s very important.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to Health Care America. This is really important, what you’ve just been describing, this astroturf organization that’s quoted by the New York Times and other publications and media as a consumer healthcare group, that isn’t, that’s sitting in APCO, made by Arnold & Porter, who represented the tobacco companies. And they’re there to kill any idea of public option or anything like that. What other organizations are there? And how successful did you think you were in dealing with Sicko? Did you think you contained the message?

WENDELL POTTER: There’s no doubt we felt we were successful in blunting the impact of the movie. We were concerned that the movie would be as successful as Fahrenheit 9/11 had been. And we knew that if it were, it really would change public opinion about our healthcare system in ways that would be harmful to the profits of health insurers. So, it was very important for this campaign to succeed. At one point during a strategy meeting, one of the people from APCO said that if our efforts, our initial efforts, were not successful, then we’d have to move to an element of the campaign to push Michael Moore off a cliff. And not meaning to do that literally, but to —

AMY GOODMAN: Are you sure?

WENDELL POTTER: Well, I’m not sure. To tell you the truth, when I started doing what I’m doing, I was concerned about my own health and well-being, maybe just from paranoia. But these companies play to win.

AMY GOODMAN: Wendell Potter was the chief spokesperson for the insurance giant CIGNA when Michael Moore’s film Sicko came out. Now Wendell Potter is a chief whistleblower. His books is called Deadly Spin.

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“They Dump the Sick to Satisfy Investors”: Insurance Exec Turned Whistleblower Wendell Potter Speaks Out Against Healthcare Industry

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