“That which we witness, we are forever changed by, and once witnessed we can never go back.”
Wendell Potter is a former CIGNA executive turned whistle-blower, and current fellow at the Center for Media and Democracy. He had a successful career with Cigna as director of corporate communications, liked his co-workers very much, and was well compensated financially in addition to enjoying numerous perks. So why did he leave and then become adversary to an industry that had treated him so well?
In July of 2007, shortly after Michael Moore’s movie “Sicko” was released (a movie by the way that he worked very hard to discredit, only to later admit that it had been “an honest film”) Potter paid a visit to his parents in Tennessee. While there, he read about a health clinic that was being held in nearby Wise county Virginia by the Remote Area Medical Clinic Volunteer Core and decided to check it out. What he witnessed there shook him to the core and brought him to tears. The clinic was being held at the local fairgrounds where thousands of people (some of whom had driven from Georgia, Kentucky, and South Carolina) were waiting in seemingly endless lines for healthcare delivered in animal stalls. When recalling that July day, Potter told Bill Moyers on Bill Moyers Journal, “It was absolutely stunning. It was like being hit by lightning. It was almost– what country am I in? … it just didn’t seem to be a possibility that I was in the United States. It was like a lightning bolt had hit me.”
Craig Keilburger and Marc Kelburger, founders of “Free the Children and authors of the best selling book, “ME to We: Finding Meaning in a Material World” explore how perfectly good people like you and I come to defend ourselves against the large scale suffering of others by blocking it out and going about business as usual. One way we do this is to distance ourselves from those who are hurting by “convincing ourselves that ‘they’ are not like ‘us.’…We may blame them for their circumstances, emphasizing or imagining all the weaknesses and failures of that group that have led to these circumstances. We may try to ignore the external factors, the political, ideological, economic, military and other forces that shaped their fates from the outside… Seeing people in ‘us’ and ‘them’ terms makes it easier to dehumanize and devalue them, to assume that there are fundamental differences between us and them, and to blame them for their suffering. Thinking in ‘us’ and ‘them’ terms also makes it easier to reduce people to numbers, to conveniently forget about their individuality.”
Suddenly confronted with the desperation and suffering surrounding him at the fairgrounds that day, his defenses began to crumble. He’d been insulated in his high- rise Philadelphia office, flying corporate jets, surrounded by the vestiges of wealth, and served lunches on gold trimmed plates. He hadn’t truly known “what was really going on,” he explained to Moyers. He was aware that 47 million people were uninsured, and that among the insured, there were many who could not afford to pay their deductibles, but he had never attached real live faces to those numbers. In a town not far from the one he grew up in, Wendell Potter had an epiphany. “There could have been people and probably were people that I had grown up with. They could have been people who grew up …in the house down the road from me. And that made it real to me.”
In December, five months after his fateful visit to the fairgrounds, 17 year old Nataline Sarkisyan died the very night that Cigna reversed its decision (under tremendous pressure) to deny coverage for a liver transplant. Here was yet another real person in lieu of a statistic, a young woman with hopes and dreams and whose parents loved her very much, just as Wendell loved his own daughter. In addition to dealing with his feelings regarding Nataline’s death, he was inundated with angry and accusatory calls and letters from people all over the country. In January, Potter informed CIGNA that he would be resigning.
On June 24th, in Philadelphia, he testified before a U.S. Senate Committee. His opening remarks included, “My name is Wendell Potter and for 20 years, I worked as a senior executive at health insurance companies, and I saw how they confuse their customers and dump the sick — all so they can satisfy their Wall Street investors. I know from personal experience that members of Congress and the public have good reason to question the honesty and trustworthiness of the insurance industry. Insurers make promises they have no intention of keeping, they flout regulations designed to protect consumers, and they make it nearly impossible to understand — or even to obtain — information we need.”
Three months later he met with the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee and warned, “…if Congress goes along with the so-called ‘solutions’ the insurance industry says it is bringing to the table and acquiesces to the demands it is making of lawmakers, and if it fails to create a public insurance option to compete with private insurers, the bill it sends to the president might as well be called the Insurance Industry Profit Protection and Enhancement Act.” He further explained that the Baucus plan would enable insurers to charge the elderly and families up to 7.5 times as much as younger people, weaken state regulation of insurers, fail to make affordable coverage for those currently insured more available, or stop the increase in medical bankruptcy. Instead, the Baucus bill would insure a huge new stream of revenue for the insurance companies as individuals were forced to purchase insurance policies and taxpayers were required to finance the necessary subsidies for those who could not afford the premiums.
Potter also stressed to congress that the public option should “not just be an ‘option’ to be bargained away at the behest of insurance companies who are pouring money into Congress to defeat substantial and essential reforms. A public option must be created to provide true choice to consumers or reform will fail to truly fix the root of the severe problems that have been caused in large part by the greedy demands of Wall Street. By creating a strong public option and restricting the insurance industry's ability to enrich executives and investors at the expense of taxpayers and consumers, H.R. 3200 will truly benefit average Americans. The Baucus plan, on the other hand, would create a government-subsidized monopoly for the purchase of bare bones, high-deductible policies that would truly benefit Big Insurance. In other words, insurers would win; your constituents would lose.”
I am grateful to Wendell Potter. Yes, it’s certainly true that he was aware of the unethical and in some cases deadly practices of his industry, and he actively participated in many of them, however, how different was he really from the rest of us? How different is he from those of us who turn away when the faces of starving children flash across our television screen while a narrator urges us to commit to just dollars a day (less than the cost of a large Starbucks coffee) to help feed these children? How different is he from those of us who are well aware of the wrongs committed by our own industries while we continue to show up for work each day and collect our paychecks? How different is he from those who die each and every year from “karosh,i” the Japanese term for death due to job related stress and overwork; those poor souls (my own husband came very close to being one of them) who dragged themselves to work every day while knowing at some level that their current jobs were truly ‘killing’ them? How is it that in a free and democratic society according to David Johnson “Americans put in more hours at work than any other nation, surpassing even the workaholic Japanese. We average nine more weeks of labor per year than our working counterparts in Western Europe, who get at least 20 paid days of vacation each year.”
It’s been said that evil prevails when good people do nothing to stop it. I am one of those people who on far too many occasions have done nothing. As Rabbi Abraham Heschel wisely pointed out, “In regards to cruelties committed in the name of a free society, some are guilty, while all are responsible.” Wendell Potter, from my perspective, is most definitely a guilty man. He is also a product of his society, a society that according to Paul Rogat Loeb, “has systematically taught us to ignore the ills we see, and leave them to others to handle.” Wendell Potter is working very diligently to right the wrongs that he both witnessed and participated in committing. What about those of us who stand by and do nothing while special interest groups twist the facts and feed the fears of misinformed but perfectly good people? What about those of us who refuse to take a stand while thousands of mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and children die each year in the United States of America because they lack access to proper health care? We might, just might, escape the guilt, but we cannot escape the responsibility.