Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Health Care Corporate Disinformation Campaigns: Wendell Potter's "Deadly Spin"

I wish I had gotten to this earlier....  In 2009, Wendell Potter, a mild-mannered former chief of public relations for for-profit health care insurance company Cigna, testified before Congress about how insurance companies manipulated public opinion to support corporate vested interests. 
insurance companies make promises that they have no intention of keeping, how they flout regulations designed to protect consumers . . . and how they ‘purge’ small businesses when their employees’ medical claims exceed what underwriters expected
In November, 2010, he published a book entitled Deadly Spin on this topic.  Starting then, a series of op-ed pieces by Potter, reviews of his book, and interviews with him provided a chilling picture about how corporate health care uses disinformation to support its interests, regardless of the public's interests.  I am sure there is much more in the book, which I will endeavor to purchase and read forthwith.  Meanwhile, pieced together from these articles are examples of insurance industry disinformation campaigns, and some observations about how their disinformation machine works.

Stifling the Clinton Administration's Health Care Reform

He took part in the planning for the 'Harry and Louise advertising blitz that helped derail the Clinton health-care initiative and used to bandy about catchphrases that have resonated in more recent campaigns.

Discrediting Michael Moore's Movie Sicko

I described the meticulously planned and deception-based strategy the health insurance industry developed and carried out -- with help from one of Washington's biggest PR firms -- to discredit documentary maker Michael Moore and his 2007 movie, Sicko. Because the movie laid much of the blame for the seemingly intractable problems of the American health care system on insurers, the industry I used to work for spent a big chunk of policyholders' premiums on a behind-the-scenes campaign to demonize Moore and to misinform Americans about the health-care systems in Canada and Europe that -- as Moore explained in the movie -- provide coverage for all their citizens and provide high quality care for them at much lower costs than we do in the U.S.
[Potter, Huffington Post]

Quieting the Furor After a Denied Liver Transplant

In 2007, Cigna initially denied payment for a liver transplant for a 17-year old girl named Nataline Sarkisyan, creating a national uproar.
We learn that executives at Cigna worried that Nataline’s situation would only add fire to the growing public discontent with a health care system anchored by private insurance. As the case drew more national attention, the threat of a legislative overhaul that would ban for-profit insurers became real, and Mr. Potter found himself working on the biggest P.R. campaign of his career.[Chen]

As busy as they might have felt in the days leading up to Nataline’s death, he and his staff were inundated with calls from the news media immediately afterward. To bolster what was seen as a fight for its survival, Cigna hired a large international law firm and a P.R. firm already well known to them from previous work aimed at discrediting Michael Moore and his film 'Sicko.'

Twisting "Obamacare" to Benefit the Insurance Industry

Mr Potter himself wrote about how "Obamacare" was twisted into a win for the insurance industry in an op-ed entitled "Repeal and Replace?":
Despite all the attacks on 'Obamacare,' 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.'
[Potter, Newsweek]

On one hand, the goal of the insurance industry was the "individual mandate," the requirement that all Americans MUST purchase insurance, which for most means insurance provided by for-profit health insurance companies:
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.' Then I knew the industry’s disingenuous charm offensive had begun. Soon after that I read that, Aetna chairman and CEO Ron Williams, the driving force behind the industry’s effort to get the individual mandate enacted, had met with the president half a dozen times. I knew Williams was trying to persuade the president to drop his insistence on the public option and to embrace the individual mandate. Sure enough, Williams got his wish.
[Potter, Newsweek]
In fact,
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.
[Potter, Newsweek]

On the other hand, the industry wanted to make sure that the law did not regulate them too tightly, or otherwise inconvenience them or cost them too much money:
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.
[Potter, Newsweek]

Tactic: Front Groups

This seems right out of the old KGB playbook, as described by Mr Potter in an interview about the campaign to discredit Michael Moore's Sicko:
one key component was to fund a front group, and that is something that I write about quite a bit in the book, about how special interests, and the insurance industry, in particular, will use premium dollars to funnel thousands and thousands, if not millions, of dollars to big PR firms to set up fake grassroots organizations—astroturf, as we call it—and front groups. And in this case, there was a front group that was set up called Health Care America, and the sole purpose for it to be set up was to attack Michael Moore and to attack the notion of a single-payer system in this country.

Note that this particular tactic was never previously exposed:
I’ve done a search recently just to find out how they were covered, and they were never exposed.

But it was quite influential:
They were quoted extensively. They sent out press releases. And they were given status as a legitimate organization, even by the New York Times.

Tactic: Third Parties (Useful Idiots?)

An example from Potter's account of how insurers manipulated the Obama administration's health care reform:
He contends that the insurance industry used 'third parties,' such as sympathetic congressmen, 'to kill key elements of the president’s plan, if not all of it, by scaring and lying to the public.'

Here is another version used in the campaign to quell the furor over the denial of the liver transplant:
the aggressive placement of articles with friendly 'third party' reporters, editors and producers who would 'disabuse the media, politicians and the public of the notion that Nataline would have gotten the transplant if she had lived in Canada or France or England or any other developed country.'

Tactic: Spies

This really is out of the espionage playbook:
A 'spy' was dispatched to Nataline’s funeral; and when the Sarkisyan family filed a lawsuit against the insurer, a team of lawyers was assigned to keep track of actions and comments by the family’s lawyer.

Tactic: Distractions to Make Important Issues Anechoic

We have often discussed how some of the issues we discuss on Health Care Renewal are anechoic, generating almost no discussion, polite or otherwise in the medical and health care research and policy literature, and sometimes even in the main-stream media. Part of the anechoic effect may be due to deliberate distraction, as Potter discussed in reference to the campaign to manipulate "Obamacare":
Potter shows then-Cigna chairman Edward Hanway's leading role in "a multi-milllion-dollar public relations and advertising campaign" in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, designed to 'divert the public's and the media's attention' away from the central fact of millions of uninsured and underinsured sick people, toward other problems that were harder to blame on insurers: aging Americans, extravagant doctors, expensive technology, and consumers demanding costly operations they don't need.
Note that the usual dogma one sees in the medical and health care research/ policy literature about the causes of US health care's excess costs, declining access and poor quality are just as listed above: an aging population, high doctors' fees and excessive utilization, technology that appears to be ever costlier (unlike technology everywhere but health care), and patients' unreasonable demands.

Tactic: Message Discipline

As discussed by Potter in terms of the campaign to align "Obamacare" with the insurance industry's interests:
It's incredible message discipline, and it's based on an understanding of ideology. The health insurers know that they need to be allied with big, well-researched organizations like the Chamber of Commerce. They want to be associated with people who can convince us that the way to go for health care is market-based. You're going to be hearing in the weeks to come, as we revisit health care, from Republicans and big business and those in the industry that what we need are 'common-sense, market-based solutions.' Those are carefully crafted words, just as what we have now was a 'government takeover of the health care system.' They spend enormous amounts of money very carefully selecting words and putting them together in a way that will elicit an emotional response. The people who are saying this believe their own talking points because they don't have an understanding of how the system is working or not working. If they are conservative, they think, 'I'm supposed to believe this.' They're supposed to believe that the market should work well in health care. They just simply have their blinders on and won't take them down to see the reality.
Tactic: Entrapment (Double-Think?)

Finally, Potter discussed how public relations leaders keep their own people in line:
There's an entrapment that's part of the problem here. I was paid very well, but I wasn't independently wealthy, and I had to consider my own ability to make the house payments and the car payments and putting the kids through school. You also find that your ego and what you do for a living, you let it define you. How much money you make, what neighborhood you're able to live in, where you're able to send your kids to school, it all becomes part of your shell and your own self-identity. To do anything that will potentially destroy that is too frightening for people. It was certainly something I had to deal with, and I had to come to terms with the fact that I could lose all of that, whatever I had. I came to feel, well, I could lose it but what have I lost? A good friend of mine said, 'Well, you can at least push a broom, can't you?' I didn't think I was going to end up pushing a broom, but I didn't have to have all of that stuff. But people are afraid of losing all that stuff because they're afraid of losing part of their identity. So, financially and psychologically and from an ego point of view, it's hard to separate yourself from something you've been involved in.

In Mr Potter's own words, the for-profit health insurance industry's public relations machine, and by extension, the public relations machines of all the big health care corporate players
onslaught drastically weakened health-care reform and how it plays an insidious and often invisible role in our political process anywhere that corporate profits are at stake, from climate change to defense policy.
[Potter, Huffington Post]
The onslaughts of spin will not stop, the distortions will not diminish, and the spin will not slow down. To the contrary, spin begets spin, as the successes of corporate PR functionaries increase the revenues of their employers, further funding their employers' efforts to create a more hospitable climate for their business interests. Americans are thus being faced with increasingly subtle but effective assaults on their beliefs and perceptions. Their best defense right now is to understand and to recognize the sophisticated tactics of the spinners trying to manipulate them.

Most important is a singular mandate: Be skeptical.
[Potter, Huffington Post]

I hope that summarizing some of Mr Potter's amazing points will help us all to be much more skeptical.

Note that Mr Potter has his own blog here, which will be added soon to our blog roll.


Chen P. When insurers put profits between doctor and patient. New York Times, January 6, 2011. Link here.
DiStefano JN. Potter vs Hanway: Cigna rebel tells all in book. Philadelphia Inquirer, January 20, 2011. Link here.
Goodman A. "Push Michael Moore off a cliff." Democracy Now, November 17, 2010. Link here.
Kendall J. An insider dissects the health insurance industry. Boston Globe, November 22, 2010. Link here.
Potter W. Repeal and replace? Newsweek, November 5, 2010.  Link here
Potter W. Why I will stay far away from cliffs from now on. Huffington Post, November 9, 2010. Link here.
Weiss G. Spin doctor reveals all., December 21, 2010. Link here.
Whitaker R. The insurance industry scam. Austin Chronicle, January 21, 2011. Link here.
Wilemon T. 3 events led 'Deadly Spin' author to turn on health insurance industry. Tennessean, January 13, 2011. Link here.


Afraid said...

Yes, Potter is a brave man for coming forward after having a change of heart. There must be a huge number of people who know many parts of what goes on, yet so few want to risk their children's future. Why hasn't Potter's revelations caused more stir, no prosecutions, no outrage?

Some have said that there are those citizens afraid that if they speak out against healthcare or insurance that they will get poor medical treatment should they need it.

How's that for broken trust?

Anonymous said...

While I am not a fan of the insurance companies, we also have to address the isse of costs in the medical industry. There was an article the the NY Times yesterday in which it was reported that a hemophiliac had incurred costs of $800,00 for a year's worth of medications! I'd love to see how Pharma can justify that one!!

Anonymous said...

From my business perspective I see an old chestnut, pay. For decades pay has been used to keep sales people in line. Offer someone an above average income and they will jump at the opportunity, then you remind them when some distasteful, or even illegal, act needs to be committed how well they are paid and they will not find another job at this pay level.

Insurance, pharma/device companies and even medicine itself are all sales or marketing based industries. Doctors practice more marketing based medicine than science based medicine. Psychiatry is certainly in the middle of a major blood bath regarding marketing v. factual based treatment systems.

We see weekly “studies” promoting a treatment or personal bias over hard science and common sense.

We need to get the sales out of these industries and get back to personal responsibility and trustworthy leadership.

Steve Lucas

Anonymous said...

Your explanation of "pay" is quite kind. I heard an anecdote yesterday that may be more accurate. I believe the story was attributed to W.C. Fields (but maybe not.)

Sitting at an elegant dinner, Mr. Fields (or whoever) leaned over to his attractive dinner partner and asked, "Would you sleep with me for a million dollars?" The young woman answered, "Yes, of course I would."

Then he asked, "Would you sleep with me for $10?" Indignantly, his companion pulled away and said, "Absolutely not! What kind of woman do you think I am?"

"Madam," he replied, "it's already been determined what kind of woman you are . . . we are now merely negotiating price."