‘I owe the American people an apology’: A former healthcare executive says he’s sorry for devising the biggest argument against Medicare for All

  • Wendell Potter, a former health insurance executive and now pro-Medicare for All activist, apologized for his role in designing the biggest argument against industry reform in a New York Times op-ed published Tuesday.
  • He was referring to the idea of choice, or put another way, the freedom of Americans to pick their own health insurance plans and which doctors they want to see.
  • The activist called it “a PR concoction,” one filling him with “everlasting regret.”
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A former executive at a prominent health insurance company had one thing to say recently: I’m sorry.

Wendell Potter, once a vice president for corporate communications at Cigna and now a pro-universal healthcare activist, laid out his apology in theNew York Times on Tuesday for crafting one of the biggest arguments used against the creation of a single-payer system in the United States.

He was referring to the idea of choice, or put another way, the freedom of Americans to pick their own health insurance plans and which doctors they want to see.

It’s a common argument the health industry employs to oppose any attempt to change the system. Most recently, its spearheaded a multimillion dollar effort to throttle proposals for Medicare for All, which would enroll everyone in the US onto a government insurance plan and virtually eliminate the private insurance sector.

“When the candidates discuss health care, you’re bound to hear some of them talk about consumer ‘choice,'” Potter wrote, referring to the Democratic primary field. “If the nation adopts systemic health reform, this idea goes, it would restrict the ability of Americans to choose their plans or doctors, or have a say in their care.

He called it “a good little talking point,” effective at casting any reform proposal expanding the government’s role in healthcare as drastically damaging.

But Potter said that defense was ultimately “a P.R. concoction,” and one that filled him with “everlasting regret.”

“Those of us in the insurance industry constantly hustled to prevent significant reforms because changes threatened to eat into our companies’ enormous profits,” Potter wrote.

Potter resigned his position at Cigna in 2008. And he testified to Congress a year later about the practices of an industry that “flouts regulations” and “makes promises they have no intention of keeping.” He’s since become a leading reform advocate.

The activist said in the Times op-ed that healthcare executives were well aware their insurance often severely limited the ability of Americans to personally decide how they accessed and received medical care, unless they wanted to pay huge sums of money out of their own pockets.

“But those of us who held senior positions for the big insurers knew that one of the huge vulnerabilities of the system is its lack of choice,” Potter said. “In the current system, Americans cannot, in fact, pick their own doctors, specialists or hospitals – at least, not without incurring huge ‘out of network’ bills.”

The “choice” talking point, Potter wrote, polled well in focus groups that insurers set up to test their messaging against reform plans, leading them to adopt it.

Now he is shocked to see an argument that he had a hand in engineering used among Democrats battling to claim their party’s nomination to face off against President Trump in the 2020 election – and Potter says the insurers likely see it as a huge victory for them.

“What’s different now is that it’s the Democrats parroting the misleading ‘choice’ talking point – and even using it as a weapon against one another,” Potter wrote. “Back in my days working in insurance P.R., this would have stunned me. It’s why I believe my former colleagues are celebrating today.”

One of the biggest divides among Democratic candidates is on health reform.

The progressive wing of the party, led by Sen. Bernie Sanders, largely supports enacting Medicare for All. So does Sen. Elizabeth Warren, though she’s tempered her rhetoric backing it in the last few months after rolling out her own universal healthcare plan and drawing criticism for its hefty $20.5 trillion price tag.

Moderates like former Vice President Joe Biden and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg are pushing to create an optional government insurance plan for Americans instead. They’ve argued that a single-payer system could kick millions of Americans off their private insurance and restrict their ability to manage their care – echoing the line of attack used by the healthcare industry.

Potter had a warning for voters as they head to the polls in this year’s election.

“My advice to voters is that if politicians tell you they oppose reforming the health care system because they want to preserve your ‘choice’ as a consumer, they don’t know what they’re talking about or they’re willfully ignoring the truth,” Potter wrote in the op-ed. “Either way, the insurance industry is delighted. I would know.”