Steve Klingaman

Steve Klingaman
Minneapolis, Minnesota,
January 01
Steve Klingaman is a nonprofit development consultant and nonfiction writer specializing in personal finance and public policy. His music reviews can be found at

Editor’s Pick
JANUARY 20, 2011 8:30AM

An Insider Switches Sides in the Health Care Wars

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Wendell Potter 

Wendell Potter:  A Daniel Ellsberg for the health care wars?


Wendell Potter, a 20-year PR exec at CIGNA, finally found his footing in the human race one day in the hills of Virginia, near where he grew up, when he visited a temporary health care encampment set up by Remote Area Medical (RAM) to offer lifesaving care to local residents—in the animal stalls of an abandoned barn.  To Potter, it was like “a M.A.S.H unit,” “a refugee camp,” and despite his front row seat at the health care table, he finally confronted starker realities than even his opposition could imagine.

            The result?  A fine new book, a book which some call the “if you only read one book in 2011 make it this one”—a book of startling honesty and plain speaking about how Big Heath Care won the war on health care reform.  “Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR Is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans,” is the kind of book that delivers its knockout punch through the accretion of fact after fact, episode after episode, from the inside, the way Wikileaks deconstructed diplomacy.

Deadly Spin 

            How do you win a spin war?  You combine a boatload of powerful people with a vested interest, buckets of money, diligent research, and weekly “marching order” calls—in short, you get a pro game plan and stick to it.  What does it feel like to be on the inside?  A little bit like Mad Men if the characters of Mad Men had all gone to grad school to study polling and sociometric analysis.  Spin wars begin with two components:  ideology and polling data.  Potter says that for politicians ideology—and he is speaking of conservative ideology here—precedes deliberation.  The job of a spin doctor is to know the subject’s ideology and feed him factoids that are fundamentally consonant with his worldview.

            Polling provides those factoids.  Every sound bite is pre-tested for effectiveness with voters who fit a target profile.  And much of the testing is supported by years of polling data.  So government takeover, for example, comes from a storehouse of research that affirms it as the gold standard in effectiveness, both with legislators and their voters.

            Fear is the driver—no surprise there.  People, silly fools, fear government takeovers more than corporate takeovers.  So, as Potter readily acknowledges that death panels exist in the persons and committees of medical directors and review panels at publicly held health insurance giants, he serves as a credible interpreter of the damage done by his previous side.  Potter alleges that the death panel function within corporate insurance carriers is denial of coverage, not care, but that the two are synonymous because the cost of lifesaving care for, say, a child’s liver transplant, is beyond the means of 99.99 percent of the population.

            Potter describes how industry-wide PR teams would hold weekly conference calls to disseminate the message of the week.  Contract lobbyists in Washington would spoon-feed the message to their constituents (our legislators) on the Hill. And thus you heard the endless feedback loop of sound bites 24/7 coming from anti-reform legislators as if they actually thought this stuff up.  Well, most of the stuff anyway.  Death panels seems to have been a bit more viral, at least to Potter’s telling.  Today, he sounds disgusted by the term.  (I know, it’s ironic that his sensibilities can be offended in this manner at this point, but more on that in a minute.)   The power of these revelations does not lie in the facts themselves—many of us guessed at all of this—but in the verisimilitude of the narrative.

      Potter seems to have had a complete change of heart.  This is one of the more astounding elements of the book.  Potter drank the Kool-Aid long ago.  He acknowledges that.  And he rationalized that he was doing right by keeping score of the cases in which his advice to CIGNA—based solely on the exigencies of public image and corporate self-interest—helped to win the day for some poor, sick person who had paid for a policy, been rejected for lifesaving care, and then went to the media.  (All other supplicants need not apply.)

            His epiphany seems real enough.  It reminded me of accounts of Bobby Kennedy visiting Appalachia and being shocked out of his privileged cocoon by the depths of poverty he found there.  That this wretched—(what used to be called “grinding poverty—state of affairs now exists on the health care front, well, that should shock all of us.  But I was referencing a similar health care intervention event in Long Beach just last fall.  We need more of these. We need them staged in the public parking lots of abandoned shopping centers, and in horse barns if necessary.  We need to reveal the presence of those whose need is so desperate that we can overcome the lies of government takeover and the best health care system in the world.  And in this, today, Potter agrees.

            As to Potter, I accept his change of heart.  Why wouldn’t we welcome effective communication weapons in the face of a new round of onslaughts against civilized health care delivery mechanisms that we face today, specifically the coming fight to defund what they cynically call ObamaCare?  (The term must have tested well.)  Let Potter wrestle with his conscience—and provide us with a compelling insider’s narrative in the process.


(Wendell Potter appeared as a guest on the January 19, 2011 Midmorning show on KNOW, an Minnesota Public Radio affiliate in the Twin Cities hosted by Kerry Miller.  Potter's remarks on the program provided the indirect quotes that are referenced in this post.)

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Hopefully this guy will get lots of media attention.

And the media need to cover those RAM events...I saw a bit about one, maybe on 60 Min?...and it was shocking.

Some coverage of the health care system here in Canada and in other 'developed' countries too (not just the brain-tumor commercial that was run by Repubs...)
Eventually the truth always comes out.....

Unfortunately, he'll be cast out as someone on "the other side" now, regardless of his experience, previous involvement and everything else. These people are playing to win, not to do the right thing. They don't even have to pull a Bobby and go see people in poverty in a far-away area of the country. They can go to their own districts and see it, but they won't.
Great post, Steve.

Mr. Potter has been a fairly regular guest on Keith Olbermann's show. I first recall seeing him during the original health care reform "debate" (debacle).

This most recent dog & pony show of "repeal the job-killing Obamacare" bill, while fascinating as really good Kabuki, is not being openly supported, or opposed, by the corporate health insurance companies.

I believe that they (the insurance companies) got a great deal of what they actually wanted in this bill and are content to let their paid flunkies in various Republican-held House Committees strip out, by defunding, those pesky parts which they did not want.

I applaud Mr. Potter for shedding some light on the machinations of the health insurance industry's perfidy, but I think that they have won, and will continue to win as long as they are allowed to increase their profits by decreasing the amount of service which they provide.
I hope he gets through to someone as what are people afraid of in this country? I cannot believe how this country is so backward..
Rated with hugs
A little more preaching to the choir, and this morning the House voted to repeal Obama Care.
The fact is, we're engaged as a society in a national game of tug of war.
The rope, is the modality with which we care for the health of all of the people of our nation.
President Obama threw in first the single-payer towel, then the public option one to boot while kowtowing to health-care public enemy number one - Big Insurance, surrendering the public interest chickens in health-care to the foxes who ruined the chicken coop to begin with.
I'm currently hoping for the defeat of Obama Care, and his replacement (by someone other than a republican) in 2012, because unless we see the stupid republicans kill their own best compromise, Big Insurance like the incarcelled head of the bloated tick that they are, will be so well positioned as to be unmovable by the people.
Then we start all over again.
I saw him on Countdown last night, and he as a guest at least a couple of times on Bill Moyers Journal. I wonder if he has any bodyguards, as I would think a lot of people really, really, really don't like him. (And I'm definitely going to read that book!)
Thanks Steve. I just ordered the book. I hope it will be the talk of the town.
I've been following him for some time and find him very interesting. As someone who used to work in an arcane insurance niche market (Coporate-owned life insurance) that probably didn't benefit our society in the least, I understand all too well how you can drink that Koolaid. Thanks for this post.
EverNewEcoN’s take on

The GOP’s last gasp on healthcare reform
Andrew Leonard,, Jan. 20, 2011

Americans are actually understanding now-you-
see-it-now-you-don’t monopolistic health insurance,
and its variously 39%, 59% (...whatever jazzes the
health execs, apparently the increases rounded
down 1% the same way retailers mark items as
$8.99, $9.99, etc.) premium increases leaves them and
their families thoroughly insecure suckers.

The health insurers are wondering if mandatory
purchases by healthy persons, the risky ones
getting sent to state-assisted pools, is actually
preferable to a dwindling pool of employ’ds
who’re ready and able to buy coverage.
I have also seen interviews with Potter, and don't know if he has, but it would be helpful to the cause of truth if he did the network morning news shows, and morning and afternoon talkies. Those are the best venues for speaking to middle America.
I hope his book becomes a game-changer.
Thanks for this very interesting piece. As others have pointed out, I unfortunately don't think this will be a game changer.

We have a death panel and it is the US society as a whole. Every citizen is a member of this death panel. By not providing adequate health care to everybody (a societal choice), we are condemning about 45,000 people to die prematurely (the latest estimate). You can add many thousands more who also die prematurely because they are underinsured.

I don't remember who posted something about how short sound bites (i.e., government takeover, etc.) can easily influence people and the message. What you describe above is another good example.
Yes -- this guy carries a great deal of credibility because of his back ground. I've worked the corporate world and understand the draw to stand by your company and the people within that company, it's a very strong draw. You know when you are doing some things it runs a bit contrary to who you are but you subjugate yourself to what is supposed to be the greater good. I need to find this book. Thanks for the review.
This guy will get swept under the rug - the wingnuts will continue to bleet OBAMACARE OBAMACARE and their brethren will buy it hook, line and sinker.
Better that Potter had a change of heart than he didn't. It sounds like he's presenting a more rigorous expose of the denial of coverage that Moore did in the first part of Sicko. Good for him and let's hope something comes of it.
What I don't get is how insurance becomes synonymous with health care. Health insurance companies have a profit motive to not pay for health care for the sick. That fact is embedded in the structure of insurance.

We need to have a conversation about how to provide (and pay for) health care. By framing the discussion about health insurance, we're closing off other solutions.
Thanks for your your comments.

Kanuk, that was me, two weeks ago, with "Mastering the Nine-Second Sound Bite."

Marty's Husband, yes, loyalty to the firm is a powerful psychological motivator--and a good reason not to vilify people when they do defect, so as to encourage others to follow suit.

Devilgrrl, maybe he will get swept under the rug. I recognize the opposition is not monolithic, but today on the radio Michele Bachmann was confronted about 17 verified false statements she made, many about health care reform, and she just launched into an incoherent rant about "Obama's lies."

Abrawang, the book contains a fascinating look at the industry response to "Sicko," and Potter was there.
An insider’s narrative—particularly one in which the person narrating has now “switched sides” to become an ostracized outsider—is typically the most compelling kind. The story you detail here made me think of Jeffrey Wigand’s story as portrayed in the movie The Insider. This is actually a very good film which you should check out if you’re not already familiar with it. The narrative parallels Wendell Potter’s story in a number of ways.

Wigand was the tobacco executive who spilled the beans on the fact that the tobacco companies not only were well aware of the addictive nature of their product—even though the executives of every major company stated otherwise in their testimony before a Congressional committee, thereby perjuring themselves—but were in fact deliberately manipulating the product to make it even more addictive and therefore increase their profit margins.

Very different types of industry, of course, but the similarities between the way each one has acted in terms of both an egregiously dishonest PR campaign, as well as in the use of their corporate power to influence the political process, and the journalists who cover this process, is quite telling.
Deadbeat, I'll check out the film. That a plausible analogy at any level can be drawn between the tobacco industry and the health insurance industry is horrifying, is it not? And yet...there it is--turncoats, fudged evidence, dissembling before Congress, seeming to cooperate while undermining reasonable discourse. It's just business, right?
Yeah, it's definitely a worthwhile film. Al Pacino, Russell Crowe, directed by Michael Mann, the same guy who did Heat, and Miami Vice, believe it or not. Also interesting in that it portrays the caving in of CBS News/60 Minutes under pressure from the tobacco industries. Pacino plays Lowell Bergman, an investigative reporter who left 60 Minutes as a result of what happened in this particular case, and now works for PBS's Frontline.
Yeah, I know what you mean--two industries that should be acting in a manner directly in opposition to each other in terms of the fundamental nature of what each one does, actually turn out to operate in much the same way when defending their interests. I think at a certain level, all businesses tend to act in this way, regardless of the fundamentals of their business.