Repeal and Replace?

By Potter, Wendell | Newsweek, November 15, 2010 | Go to article overview

Repeal and Replace?


Potter, Wendell, Newsweek


Byline: Wendell Potter

Not so fast. An insurance-company defector explains why the most controversial provision of the health-care law will survive.

Conservatives who voted for congressional candidates because they pledged to repeal and replace the health-care reform law are in for a rude awakening. Once those newly elected members of Congress have a little talk with the insurance industry's lobbyists and executives, they will back off from that pledge. They will go through the motions, of course. They'll hold hearings and take to the floor of both Houses to rail against the new law, and they'll probably even introduce a bill to repeal it with much fanfare--but it will all be for show. That's because health insurers, one of Republican candidates' biggest and most reliable benefactors--the industry contributed three times as much money to Republicans as to Democrats since January--can't survive without it.

Despite all the attacks on "Obama-care," the new law props up the -employer-based system that insurers and large corporations benefit from so greatly. It also guarantees that private insurers will get billions of dollars in new revenue. And the insurers won't have to share a penny of that windfall with a government-run public option the president once said was necessary "to keep insurers honest."

I know what the insurers are thinking because, not long ago, I was on their side. I am sorry to admit it, but over nearly two decades I had a hand in planning the industry's PR and public-policy strategies to either kill or shape any health-care reform proposal that might hinder profits. I was part of the strategic-communications team that planned and carried out the successful attack on the Clinton plan in the 1990s as well as the one that killed the patients' bill of rights a few years later. I left my job handling communications for Cigna in 2008 because I didn't have the stomach to be part of yet another spin campaign to cheat Americans out of the reform they needed.

For months before I left my job, I worked closely with my counterparts at the other big insurers to develop the list of must-haves our well-connected army of lobbyists would take to Capitol Hill when lawmakers began drafting reform legislation. Despite their public statements to the contrary, insurance companies really liked much of what was in both House and Senate versions of the bill--big chunks of which they actually wrote behind the scenes--especially the requirement that all Americans buy insurance if they're not eligible for an existing public program like Medic-aid or Medicare.

During the reform debate, the industry's deception-based PR strategy had two active fronts. One was a highly visible charm offensive designed to create an image of the industry as an advocate for reform and a good-faith partner with the president and lawmakers in achieving it. The second was a secret fearmongering campaign using shadowy "AstroTurf" groups and business and political allies as shills to disseminate misinformation and lies--like the one about the creation of "death panels"--with the sole intent of killing any reform that might hurt the bottom line.

Although I was ashamed of many of the things I did during my career, I didn't plan to speak out about the industry's devious practices until I saw Karen Ignagni, president of America's Health Insurance Plans, tell President Obama at the end of his March 2009 White House Forum on Health Reform, "You have our commitment to play, to contribute, and to help pass health-care reform this year. …

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