Wendell Potter–Healthcare’s Jeffrey Wigand

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Jeffrey Wigand, in case you don’t remember, is the Brown & Williamson chemist who accused his company of intentionally manipulating the tobacco blend to increase the amount of nicotine in cigarette smoke, thereby increasing the so-called ‘impact’ to the smoker, and was portrayed by Russell Crowe in the movie “The Insider.” He’s one of the biggest corporate whistleblowers in recent history, and he helped bring about some pretty major change in the tobacco industry.

Well, if healthcare reform happens in any substantive way this year–and that’s not a given by any means right now–then Wendell Potter might be one of the motivating forces. Potter is the former head of corporate communications and chief corporate spokesman at insurance giant CIGNA, and his recent testimony about industry practices has been impressive (though it could use a bit more coverage).

Potter confirms what watchers of the industry have known for a long time–insurance companies are not in the business of providing health care, especially when it comes to expensive procedures. They’re in the business of making profits for their stockholders, and paying out hefty claims is at direct odds with that business, so whenever possible, they refuse to do so.

Rescission is one way in which insurers have sought, as Potter puts it, to “meet Wall Street’s relentless profit expectations.” Insurance companies will cancel a policy claiming that customers failed to disclose key information about their condition, even in cases where the companies themselves recorded that same information. An investigation by the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations found that health insurers WellPoint Inc., UnitedHealth Group and Assurant Inc. canceled the coverage of more than 20,000 people, avoiding paying out more $300 million over a five-year period. They targeted people with serious conditions such as breast cancer, lymphoma and high blood pressure. When Rep Bart Stupak (D-Mich) asked the heads of the three insurers if they would eliminate the practice of dropping sick patients off the rolls except in those cases of “intentional fraud,” all three refused.

Potter’s come-to-Jesus moment apparently started when he went to visit family in Tennessee and saw a health care expedition advertised in Virginia. He found people standing in the rain for hours to be served by doctors who had set up examination rooms in animal stalls, in tents, and on gurneys on rain-soaked pavement.

So far, Wendell Potter’s media tour seems to have been limited to independent media–Democracy Now! and Bill Moyers Journal, primarily–and it shouldn’t be any surprise that corporate media hasn’t picked up on the story. After all, when Jeffrey Wigand told his story to 60 Minutes, CBS spiked it at the request of Westinghouse, its parent company. Health care companies are big advertisers, and these are tough economic times.


Brian Spears is Senior Poetry Editor of The Rumpus and the author of A Witness in Exile (Louisiana Literature Press, 2011). His poem “Upon Reading That Andromeda Will One Day Devour Triangulum and Come For Us Next” was featured in Season 9 of Motion Poems. More from this author →