2011 / Wendell Potter

Wendell Potter has been awarded the 2011 Ridenhour Book Prize, which honors an outstanding work of social significance from the prior publishing year, for his book, Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR is Killing Healthcare and Deceiving Americans.

In late 2007 a 17-year-old girl, Nataline Sarkisyan, lay close to death in a Los Angeles hospital. Diagnosed with leukemia at the age of 14, Sarkisyan’s liver had failed due to the aggressive treatment that had recently cured the disease. Without a new organ she would die; if she received a transplant, her doctors gave her a 60 percent chance of surviving.

Miraculously, a perfect liver match was found a couple of days after Sarkisyan was put on the transplant list. But her insurer, CIGNA, denied the request to cover the cost of the operation, deeming it “experimental.” Nataline’s desperate mother took the fight to the headquarters of the insurer, organizing protests and demonstrations. CIGNA, finding itself embroiled in a public relations nightmare, reversed its decision. But it was too late, and Sarkisyan died two hours after their change of heart.

Her case had a profound effect on CIGNA’s then Head of Corporate Communications, Wendell Potter. He was devastated upon hearing of Sarkisyan’s death, and it led to his gradual realization that he “was part of an industry that would do whatever it took to perpetuate its extraordinarily profitable existence. I had sold my soul.” He walked away from the company shortly thereafter, becoming a leading voice in the campaign for healthcare reform.

Deadly Spin is his exposé of America’s multibillion-dollar healthcare industry. From clandestine meetings carefully organized to leave no paper trail to creating third-party front groups, Potter reveals how a PR juggernaut creates an atmosphere of fear and distortion. He details the smear campaign that he helped to devise against Michael Moore’s film Sicko, including misleading talking points that were subsequently repeated on CNN, Fox, and in the pages of USA Today. Potter later apologized to Moore, saying, “I am sorry for the part that I played in attacking the movie… I knew when I saw it the first time that you had really gotten a lot of it right, and I was really not happy at all to be part of the effort to discredit the movie.”

The judges for The Ridenhour Book Prize commend Potter for his courage in walking away from a long-standing, lucrative career, for speaking out against his former employers, and for writing a damning exposé of an industry that puts profits ahead of patient care.

2011 Book Prize Speeches

Transcript of Wendell Potter’s speech

WENDELL POTTER:  There is no one that I would rather have introduce me than Hilda Sarkisyan. Thank you so much, Hilda. [applause]

The letter that Ron Ridenhour wrote a couple of months before I graduated from high school very possibly saved my life. And in that remarkable letter, which was dated March 29, 1969, Ridenhour described a massacre of hundreds of women, children, and elderly people that he had first learned about during a casual conversation with a soldier named Butch Groover, who had witnessed it. “When Butch told me this,” Ridenhour wrote in his letter, “I didn’t quite believe what he was telling me was true. But he assured me that it was and went on to describe what had happened. He recalls seeing a small boy about three or four years old standing by the trail with a gunshot wound in one arm. The boy was clutching his wounded arm with his other hand while blood trickled between his fingers. He was staring around himself in shock and disbelief at what he saw. He just stood there with big eyes staring around like he didn’t understand. He didn’t believe what was happening. The captain’s radio operator put a burst of M16 rifle fire into him.”

Ridenhour’s account of those murders eventually led to the indictment of 25 U.S. servicemen and the conviction of Second Lieutenant William Calley. But the public still knew nothing about My Lai, and probably never would have, had Ridenhour, who was 22 at the time, not felt that the government’s cover-up was almost as morally reprehensible as the massacre itself. He started reaching out to reporters, and in November 1969, nine months after he mailed the letter, reporter Seymour Hersh wrote the first story about My Lai. His account sparked protest and outrage around the world.

Opposition to US involvement in the war intensified. Hersh won the Pulitzer Prize for his investigative reporting of the massacre and its cover-up. Had it not been for Ridenhour and Hersh, the war might have lasted far longer than it did. When the US finally began pulling out of Vietnam in January 1973, I was six months away from graduating from college. I had a student deferment from the draft while I was in school, but I very possibly would have been sent to Vietnam had the war not ended when it did.

Almost 40 years after Ridenhour wrote that letter, I introduced myself to the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee with these 40 words: “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 knew as soon as I said those words that my life, like Ron Ridenhour’s, would change forever in ways that I could not imagine. Just as Ridenhour knew firsthand about the cult of concealment within the US military and the lengths the government went to to hide the truth about My Lai, I knew the lengths the health insurance industry went to to keep its own lethal actions secret, including trying to destroy the reputation of its critics.

In many of the industry’s actions, its common operating procedures are indeed lethal, as you just heard from the mother of a young woman who might be alive today had a corporate executive not refused to pay for the liver transplant that her doctors believed would save her life. More than 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam between 1956 and 1975. That’s an average of about eight every day. As tragic as that is, consider this: approximately 123 Americans die every day because they don’t have access to the care they need, in many cases because insurance companies refuse to sell them coverage for one reason or another. Underwriters blackball people every day because of their age, their health status, and the preexisting condition that results from being born with a uterus. [laughter]

An additional untold number of Americans who do have insurance also die every day because some corporate executive, some corporate bureaucrat refused to pay for potentially life-saving medical care. Yes, Sarah Palin, we do indeed have death panels in the United States of America, but Obamacare did not create them, corporate executives did, [applause] although they spend millions of their premium dollars on propaganda campaigns to obscure that reality. That’s why I named my book Deadly Spin.

I’ve done a lot of public speaking since my first Congressional testimony nearly two years ago. At just about every forum, people ask me why I decided to begin speaking out. Was it because of something that happened suddenly, they want to know, or was it more gradual? I tell them it was both. I had grown increasingly uncomfortable serving as a spokesman for an industry that I’d come to realize was causing many of the most intractable problems in our healthcare system because of a relentless quest for profits. But I also tell them about a couple of events that made it almost impossible for me not to begin speaking out. My experiences in the corporate world were very different from Ron Ridenhour’s experiences on the battlefield. But the words he once used to describe what led him to begin speaking truth to power were uncannily similar to words I have used.

Here is what Ron Ridenhour told a newspaper reporter when he was asked what drove him to reveal the horror of My Lai when everyone else had decided that the risk of doing so was too great. “It’s hard for me to really describe exactly what my reaction was. I haven’t found a way to capture it, but it was, I guess you would say, an epiphany. It was an instantaneous recognition that this was something too horrible almost to comprehend. Just simply having the knowledge, I felt, made me complicit unless I acted on it.”

As I was writing my book I, too, was struggling to find the language to capture how I felt when I walked through the gates of the county fairground in southwestern Virginia near where I grew up in July of 2007. The Wise County fairgrounds were being used for what organizers were calling a healthcare expedition. A story I read about it said people were expected to drive from as far away as Ohio and Georgia to get care that was being provided free over three days. It said that people were expected to camp out in their cars to be sure that they would be able to get in. I decided to go check it out.

Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw when I got there. Thousands of people, soaking wet from the rain, were waiting in lines that stretched out of view. As I walked around, I noticed that some of those lines led to barns and animal stalls where doctors and nurses and other caregivers were treating patients. I wrote in Deadly Spin that as I took in that scene, I realized that the folks in those lines could have been my relatives, or my parents’ neighbors. It was clear to me at that moment that I was having an epiphany.

I knew then in a way that I had never understood before that the practices of the industry that I worked for made it necessary for Americans to get care in barns and animal stalls. To borrow Ron Ridenhour’s words, it was an instantaneous recognition that this was something too horrible almost to comprehend. And that simply having the knowledge of it would make me complicit unless I acted on it.

I wish I could tell you that I acted on it right away. I wanted to, but for months I succeeded in talking myself out of doing what I knew in my heart was the right thing to do. It took Natalie Sarkisyan to make me walk away from a high-paying, but soul-killing job. Just as Ron Ridenhour’s courageous whistleblowing may have saved my life, Nataline’s courageous fight for her life saved my soul. [applause] I left my job soon after she died.

When the debate on healthcare reform began, I decided to begin speaking out about what I knew, to pull the curtains back on the industry’s practices and deception-based plans it had developed to shape reform legislation in ways that would benefit insurance companies and the shareholders more than the rest of us. And I wanted the American people to know Nataline and to understand that what happened to her and her family can happen to all of us, especially if our employers pay even a thin dime towards our health insurance. I also wish I could tell you that the good guys won everything they were fighting for when the President signed the Affordable Care Act last year. The good guys did succeed in making some of the most egregious practices of the insurance industry illegal. They no longer can cancel a policyholder’s coverage just because they don’t want to pay for expensive medical care. And by 2014, they won’t be able to refuse to sell us coverage because of a preexisting condition, including being female.

There are many other things in the Affordable Care Act, but sadly lawmakers did not have the courage to even try to change the 37-year-old law known as ERISA that made it impossible for the Sarkisyan family to take their insurance company to court when Nataline died. That law enables corporate America to get away with murder and corporate America is so powerful, so influential in this town that very few politicians have dared to try to change the law, or even to try to hold corporations accountable for their actions.

Yes, the good guys scored a few points, but the insurance industry and its allies are pulling out all the stops to take as many of those points away as possible. This week, they unveiled their new front group, which they’ve named the Choice in Competition Coalition. The words choice and competition were carefully chosen, by the way, because they test especially well in focus groups of average Americans. Rest assured, the insurance industry’s so-called coalition will be a perpetual spin machine designed to make us think that the consumer protections in the law will rob us of our freedoms of choice, and cause our premiums to skyrocket.

Insurers do not like the provision of the law that requires them to spend at least 80 percent of what we pay in premiums on our medical care. They don’t like being told that they can no longer sell their highly profitable junk insurance, also known as mini meds, by using misleading marketing materials. And they don’t like the restrictions on how much they can make us pay out of our own pockets before our insurance policies will kick in. They want to be able to keep shifting more and more and more of the cost of care from them to us. That’s because the less they spend on their care, the more they can pay their CEOs and their shareholders.

Unless reporters do a better job of covering what really matters than they did during the recent debate on reform, unless the stories they write remind us every day why that debate was necessary in the first place, the industry’s spin machine will work exactly as planned. The insurers and other special interests have proven time and again that they are masters at getting the American people to think and act, and even vote, against their own best interests. The media all too often have been unwitting accomplices.

The only way we will ever have a healthcare system the American people deserve is for more truth-tellers to step up, and for the media to report what they have to say, to investigate the consequences of the corporate takeover of healthcare in this country [applause] and to expose the deadly spin from front groups like the Choice and Competition Coalition. We can’t expect our elected officials to do the right thing, just as they had no intention of telling us about the murders at My Lai until that happened. Thank you very much. [applause]