CONFESSIONS OF A TEENAGE PROSTITUTE Portland is the number two city nationally for people seeking underage sex. Rachael Marcus catches up with one victim.
SPIN, DOCTOR? Former health industry boss blows the whistle for reform. You can read a full transcript of the Mercury's Q&A with Wendell Potter, after the jump.
RELEASE THE NAMES The Police Commissioner, Dan Saltzman, is yet to follow the lead of a majority of city council last week, calling for the release of the city's "secret list" of downtown offenders being targeted for special treatment by the police. UPDATE: "I'm going to sit down with the city attorney an review the rationale and then make some kind of decision," Saltzman told the Mercury yesterday.
CHANGING GEARS The region's biggest bike advocacy group quits big bridge committee.
RUNNING ON EMPTY Short on shelters, domestic violence victims are being told to seek shelter in coffee shops and in the lobby at PDX airport.
UNSAFE STREETS While city makes cycling downtown safer, one road in Northeast claims two serious bike collisions in one week.
DIVIDE AND CONQUER Mayor Sam Adams and city commissioner Amanda Fritz meet with homeless advocates to discuss a replacement for the sit/lie law.
Not to mention brief items on tax breaks for developers, our bad-at-exams sheriff, and free all zones transit for some Portland Public Schools students.
Read the goddamn news.
Interview with Wendell Potter, August 28, 2009.
What are you doing in Portland?
I’m here to speak at a rally tomorrow and looking forward to trying to communicate the importance of people to get involved in the process and to make sure they understand it’s important to reach out to the members of congress to say, “We expect meaningful reform.”
So people who come to the rally should call their congress people?
Absolutely. It’s vitally important. It’s not enough for us just to have voted for a member of congress and a president that we believe is going to be doing the right thing. We need to make sure that they understand we expect them to do the right thing.
As a former health industry insider, can you speak a little bit about the impact that you think those kinds of calls are going to have on those congress people?
I think it will make a difference because otherwise, the only kinds of calls they’ll be getting will be the calls of employees of insurance companies and the people they can persuade to make calls on their behalf. That’s what going on right now. I heard from a former colleague of mine at CIGNA, and I know that CIGNA and other insurance companies are asking their employees to call their members of congress and ask those members of congress to vote against the public insurance option. So that’s going on. Regular citizens need to know that, and they need to help counter that with calls of their own to support meaningful reform that includes a public insurance option.
Have you been shocked by the tactics?
It’s par for the course. I’m not at all shocked, and that’s what I’ve been warning people, members of congress, about from the very first day I testified before Congress in June. That this is what they could anticipate. This is what is happening. This is what will become evident as time goes by. This is what they do to influence public opinion, to influence action on Capitol Hill. It is extremely affective. It is why we’ve never had health insurance reform in this country. Special interests have been so powerful, so able to scare people through their fear mongering, and so able to influence those on Capitol Hill. That’s why we’ve never had reform before.
Do you have confidence that the growing organization pushing for insurance will be effective?
I’m optimistic. I think that the difference this time, that might make the ultimate different, is that we’ve got the internet, which we didn’t have back in ‘93, ‘94. That enables people to communicate and to organize and to get things done as a group, and as advocates of reform. That wasn’t available to people. Of course, on the other hand, it’s also available to those who are opposed to reform, but on the other hand, it is something I think that people who are really in favor of reform, and I think that includes most Americans, can use to send a message to Congress that this is the time, and it must happen now.
Is this part of a tour, your trip to Portland? How many other cities have you been to?
I’ve been to many. I’ve been to Pittsburgh. I’ve been to Chicago. I’ve been to New York. I’ve been to Washington. I’m afraid I might leave some out. San Francisco. Philadelphia is where I live and where I work. All over the map. East to west. North to south. I’m going to as many places over the next few weeks. I’m going to Tennessee, North Carolina, and New Jersey, just to name a few.
You’re from Tennessee originally. What’s your take on Portland and Oregonians in general in terms of their push for this? Are people engaged? Are the congressmen and senators engaged?
People are engaged. I think certainly your members of congress are engaged. They’re on different points of the political spectrum, and they might have different interests and support different version of legislation, but I think they very much are engaged. More so probably than lawmakers representing people from other parts of the country.
How important is the public option to your view of healthcare reform?
Vitally important. This would give people an extra choice. It’s not taking choice away, and it’s not a government takeover of the healthcare industry, which is what the insurance industry would like us to believe, and it’s what their shills are trying to tell us, but it’s not true. It’s vitally important because it will be a means, as the president has said, to keep the health insurance industry honest, it will help to bring premiums down, it will be an affordable way for people to get insurance coverage, and it will be a counter to the Wall Street-run healthcare that we currently have.
Do you know much about Senator Ron Wyden and his position on this? He hasn’t come out in favor of a public option.
That’s right, yeah, he’s not. He’s got his own legislation that he’s been advocating for some time. I guess I can understand his point of view that he’d prefer his own legislation. Maybe when it gets to the point that it’s clear his version of reform might not make it that he would come around to saying the best option, really, is there to be a public insurance option.
So you’re not concerned that he still hasn’t come out and said, “We need this public option.”
You know, there are many members of congress who have not come out and said that. And part of the reason is because of the disinformation that is out there. That’s why it’s so important for people to start saying, “I don’t buy this anymore. I know where these lies and disinformation are from. And so, Senator Wyden, you need to understand that we know what’s going on, and we fully expect you to get behind a public option.” People need to tell him that.
In terms of your 20 years of experience. I watched the Bill Moyers interview with you, and he seemed to be asking, “It’s a bit convenient you’re changing your mind now.”
I’m asked that a lot. People need to realize when I was first starting in my career in the health insurance industry, it was a very different industry at that time. I rose up in the ranks, and I had a lot of promotions. In the last job I had at CIGNA I was head of corporate communications, and I had a wide range of responsibilities that gave me insights and gave me an understanding of how the insurance industry works at both the company level and the industry level. And that is something I didn’t have during the early years of my career. I was able to see how these companies make money and the lengths they go to meet their investors’ expectations and the tactics they use to misinform and mislead people at the industry level. I didn’t know that until the last part of my career. And that’s when I made the decision to leave it.
Did you have a big salary and private jet travel?
I did. I had a very, very good salary. I had bonuses, and stock options, and stock [?], and I traveled in corporate jets. It was a very good lifestyle.
Do you miss it?
It’s hard to give up that kind of lifestyle. On one level, yeah, but on the other hand, I’m much happier doing what I am now. I feel like I’m doing much more honest work now. I feel like I’m able to communicate truth now, and I’m able to enlighten people, or at least help them, to understand what is going on, and I’m much happier.
Do you feel like there are plenty of your former colleagues who would maybe benefit from a similar experience?
I wish they would understand that they would. I’ve gotten calls and emails from many, many of my friends who say, “Congratulations. Thank you for what you’re doing.” They’re just afraid to make that ultimate step. I understand that. It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. One was to quit my job —that’s very tough to do- and second was to start speaking out against an industry that’s enormously powerful. It’s a very difficult thing to think about, much less do.
You’ve talked fairly often about companies dumping the sick. I was hoping you could explain that.
Insurance companies dump the sick in two different ways. One is for people who don’t have the ability to buy insurance through the workplace; they have to buy it individually. They have to fill out applications to be accepted by the insurance company. Even if they are accepted and pay their premiums every month on time, but if they get sick and have high bills, the insurance company will often go back and look at the application to see if the person may have omitted something, inadvertently or on purpose, and find something the insurance company considers a preexisting condition that would have signaled that this person might get sick in the future. They use that review of the application with the sole purpose of finding people they can cut from their insurance rolls when they get sick. 20,000 people were discovered to have been cut from the rolls by senate investigators recently at just three insurance companies. By cutting 20,000 people from the rolls, they saved $300 million dollars, which was money available for profit.
The there main way they get rid of sick people, and healthy people along the way when they do this, is to jack the rates of small businesses when an employee gets sick and has high medical claims. Then the insurance companies will, at their next opportunity, increase the premiums so high that the small business more than likely will have to drop coverage for everybody. That’s more and more people into the ranks of the uninsured.
Was there a moment for you where you had a lightening moment where this became clear for you?
Yes. It was a couple of years ago when I was visiting relatives in Tennessee, and I picked up the hometown newspaper, and I saw there was a health expedition being held across state lines in southwestern Virginia, and I went there out of curiosity. When I went through the gates of Weiss County fairgrounds, where this was being held, I was just stunned. It was almost as if a lightening bolt had hit me. To see hundreds and hundreds of people standing in line in the rain waiting to get care that was being provided by doctors volunteering their time free of charge to people who couldn’t otherwise afford to get this care. And they were providing this care in many cases in animal stalls, in tents, in public view. You could see people getting their teeth pulled, cavities being filled. It was jut unbelievable to realize, to see that so many people are in those kinds of desperate straights. Any a lot of those people had insurance, but it was insurance that would not pay for care. It was inadequate insurance. More and more of our citizens are finding themselves uninsured because of the way insurance companies are moving towards these plans that feature high deductibles that mean people have to spend far more money out of their own pockets before their insurance coverage kicks in.
How do you think the right, insurance companies, have been trying to minimize your message since you changed sides on this?
They work through right wind bloggers and pundits to try to discredit what I’m saying by accusing me of being a socialist or identify with left-wing organizations. So that’s what they’re trying to do. They’re trying to make people believe that my motives are to support some sort of left-wing conspiracy here, which, of course, my sole motive is to try to make sure people get some truth.
And there is a truth in this debate? There is a truth to what you’re saying?
There is truth to what I’m saying. It’s demonstrated by the fact that that health insurance industry has, to this day not made anyone available to be on the same program with me or the same stage with me because they know what I’m saying is true, and they know that the questions I would ask them, they would have a hard time answering truthfully.
So programs have asked- Rachael Maddow, Sanjay Gupta, people like this- have asked health insurance industry people to be on the same programs?
Oh yeah. Many, many, many times that I’ve been on TV or on the radio program or interviewed just for print articles, the insurance industry has refused or said they just couldn’t find anyone who was available to be on the same program with me. It’s a big industry — thousands and thousands of people work in the insurance industry- and they can’t find a single person who has the time to be on the same program with me. They will often issue a statement, a brief statement, that states how much they are in favor of reform. This is the kind of thing I would have done when I was in my old job. When you don’t want to talk to a reporter or a commentator, you just send a statement and be done with it.
So they send these statements that say they’re in favor of reform, but they’re not?
They’re not. It’s deception. They’re in favor of reform if it benefits the health insurance agency. Their interests are to benefit them and their investors more than the American people.
Is this all about money for the insurance companies?
It’s all about money. The one thing these companies know how to do best is to make money off of sick people.
Did you used to have to take calls from Wall Street analysts or was it left to other people?
I did at time talk to Wall Street analysts, but my role primarily was to talk to financial reporters and the financial media. So Whenever CIGNA would announce its quarterly earnings, for example, I was the one reporters called, and these were primarily reporters from the financial media who would call with questions about the company’s finances.
To what extent were financial reporters interested in some of the horror stories about people not getting coverage?
There was no interest. It’s one of the failings of the American media.
Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
They’re not interested because they know their audience are investors and analysts. People who have money. Their audience is composed of the haves, not the have-nots. They are interested in reporting the numbers, not the stories.
What message would you have for financial journalists?
I would encourage their editors to report more about why the companies do what they do and how they do it to benefit Wall Street.
Get the best of the Mercury each week in your inbox!