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Former health insurance exec Wendell Potter: “I’m really ashamed”

Former health insurance exec Wendell Potter: “I’m really ashamed”

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"I'm really ashamed I let myself get caught up in dishonest and deceitful campaigns really just so a few corporations and their Wall Street masters could become richer than they already are. So now, in a certain way, I'm trying to make amends."

Wendell Potter, for those of you who may have missed his well-publicized conversion into a kind of insurance industry whistle-blower, was a top CIGNA public relations executive who decided that he could not stomach another industry campaign against health reform. So he left his job, testified before Congress and launched a new career as the Senior Fellow on Health Care for the Center for Media and Democracy. You can find his blog here.

On Friday, Potter spoke to The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships' board members and current Fellows, describing his journey to Congressional testimony and offering some tips for journalists covering the insurance industry and its role in the health reform debate.

Potter's turning point came when he attended a Remote Area Medical "expedition" in West Virginia, where hundreds of uninsured and underinsured people stood in line at a county fairground to receive free medical care from volunteer doctors and nurses.

"All of these people were waiting to get care in barns and animal stalls. It was overwhelming. It became apparent that the numbers I'd always heard of, 47 million uninsured, these were real people," Potter said. "It took something like this to make me see (that) the policies of the people I worked for made it necessary for these people to be here."

Shockingly, he said, Remote Area Medical officials told him that the people they serve are saying their own insurance companies are telling them to call Remote Area Medical for care.

Potter offered some practical tips to help journalists recognize the many front groups the insurance industry has set up, often with the help of large public relations agencies, to influence the health reform debate.  

1. Be wary of any organization whose website does not include a physical address or phone number.

2. Google the organization's address, phone number and staff names. You'll often find a front group housed at a public relations agency or lobbying firm. You can also check organizations at www.sourcewatch.org.

3. If what seems like a grassroots organization has money for a bus tour to promote its point of view, ask: who paid for the bus?

"When I was in my job, I was just astonished at some of the things I got away with," Potter said. "Don't settle for just getting information from someone like me. Get to know the people who work for these companies. Don't just accept statements that insurance companies send out – ask, where'd you get this information? If it's in an ad, ask where the facts came from. A lot of this stuff is really outright lies."

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