For 14 years, Wendell Potter flew high in the world of the Cigna health insurance company. He was chief public relations executive for Cigna, helping craft strategy to burnish the company's image and defend it against criticism. He said he was a loyal, dedicated employee who genuinely believed in the company and in the health care industry.
Then, in the summer of 2007, while visiting his hometown in rural eastern Tennessee, he saw an item in the local newspaper about a "health expedition" being held across the nearby state line in Wise, Va. He was curious, so he drove there to have a look.
What he saw shocked and appalled him. Hundreds of people were lined up in a drenching rain at a fairgrounds to see the volunteer doctors who were there to treat them for free. Potter learned that many of these people had no health insurance and, in some ways more stunning to him, many who did had deductibles so high or coverage so restricted they were essentially "underinsured."
In his mind, he began to see a connection between the policies and practices of American health insurance companies, such as Cigna, and the plight of the line of people at the fairgrounds.
About six months later, Potter was involved in the controversial case of a 17-year-old girl, Nataline Sarkisyan, who had been denied Cigna coverage for a liver transplant her doctors said she needed to live. Cigna declined to cover it because it was deemed an experimental procedure. As company spokesman, Potter had to defend the decision.
Eventually, the company relented and agreed to pay for the operation, but it was too late. Sarkisyan died.
Shortly afterward, Potter resigned and left the company in May 2008. For a long time, he kept his grievances and doubts to himself. But when the Obama administration put forth its health care reform plan this year, Potter said he witnessed the health care industry doing what it had done in 1993 when the Clinton administration attempted to enact health care reform: fight it while claiming publicly to endorse reform.
Potter became angry and decided to speak out against the industry in which he had worked and prospered for 20 years. Recently, he testified before a congressional committee, denouncing what he said was an industry determined to reduce costs at the expense of the insured to placate Wall Street's demand for ever larger profits.
Last Friday, I sat down with Wendell Potter at his home in Philadelphia. Potter is now a senior fellow for health care at the Center for Media and Democracy. He talked about that fateful trip to Virginia in 2007.
Potter: I went to what I'd read in the paper [was] some kind of health care expedition across the state line in Wise, Va. Out of curiosity, I went there and I was just struck like I'd never been affected before by something I saw. [I] walked through the fairground gates and I saw these thousands of people who, many of whom had slept in their cars the night before, and had lined up before dawn to make sure they got a chance to get through the fairground gates and get care that was being delivered by doctors who were volunteering their time.
I knew there were 45, now almost 50 million people without insurance, but you don't really think of it in human terms. I didn't until I saw that. To see it in the way I saw it was just a sudden realization of what really happens to so many people in this country because they don't have insurance.