Former exec: Insurers fomenting town hall chaos

A former health insurance executive says the disruptions taking place at lawmakers' town halls around the country are the result of stealth efforts by health insurance companies.

Wendell Potter, a former CIGNA vice president, detailed what he said were past covert efforts by the industry. Though he said he does not have specifics for what is occurring now, because he's been out of the business for a year, it follows the same pattern.

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"The industry is up to the same dirty tricks this year," Potter said at a Capitol news conference after meeting with House Rules Committee Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), an avid supporter of the Democrats' plans for a healthcare overhaul.

"When you hear someone complaining about traveling down a 'slippery slope to socialism,' some insurance flack, like I used to be, wrote that," Potter added.

Potter said during his 20 years in the insurance business, the industry would funnel money to large public firms who would create front groups and find friendly voices in conservative media.

In particular, he cited front groups created to fight "Patients' Bill of Rights" legislation in the 1990s, as well as a campaign to discredit the Michael Moore film "Sicko," which harshly criticized the industry.

Slaughter joined in the attack, saying "the notion that this is going to be something devilish comes from the people who would lose money on it."

A health insurance trade group, America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), sent a letter to congressional leaders earlier this week stating support for "bipartisan health reform" and denying any role in fomenting disruptions at meetings.

"There is no truth to the allegation that AHIP’s employee grassroots program is responsible for disruptive and inappropriate tactics at health care town hall meetings," wrote the group's president, Karen Ignagni. "We are urging our member plans to participate in town hall meetings to provide members of Congress with real-world examples of how they are helping to expand access, reduce costs and improve quality."

The town hall meetings of Democratic lawmakers during their August recess have been marked by shouting and heckling from vocal opponents of President Barack Obama's healthcare plan and from opponents of the protesters. There have been several instances of fisticuffs and some reports of guns being brought to events, usually legally.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has dubbed insurance companies "villains" and encouraged her members to focus on the companies' business practices, such as denying coverage for "pre-existing conditions."

The insurance industry has not launched open attacks on the overhaul plan, as it did against President Bill Clinton's plan in the 1990s. But it has lobbied to change specific provisions.

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Also at the news conference, Slaughter said she did not expect to allow a floor vote on an amendment offered by anti-abortion Reps. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) and Joe Pitts (R-Pa.).

Slaughter's committee decides what amendments will be given a vote on the floor. She said that there was no need for such legislation, since the Energy and Commerce Committee passed a "conscience clause" that allows healthcare providers to decline to provide services on moral grounds.

"We do not want to take that on in the healthcare bill," Slaughter said.

That could present problems for the bill. In the past, Stupak has threatened that anti-abortion Democrats might join with Republicans on procedural votes to block the bill if their amendments aren't considered.

A spokeswoman for Stupak said the congressman will continue to seek a floor vote for his amendment, though she wouldn't say if he would seek to block a vote.