Book Prize Recipient, 2011

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.