Replacing a system beyond repair
Wendell Potter used to spend his days as an executive at Cigna selling Americans on the private health insurance industry. Now, as the president of Business for Medicare for All, he’s trying to get rid of it.
“I was perpetuating a system that was increasingly expensive and dysfunctional and unfair and rationed care on your ability to pay,” said Potter, who left his job as the health giant’s vice president of corporate communications after experiencing an “awakening” in 2008.
He had worked there since 1993, and, before that, he was the director of communications for Humana.
But after seeing people lined up for free health care services at a county fairground in Tennessee in 2007 — some being treated in animal stalls and barns — Potter realized he was not involved in “honest work.”
It’s his decades-long experience working in the insurance industry that helped inform his eventual support for “Medicare for All” — Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) proposal to create a single-payer health care program, funded by the government, where all U.S. residents would get their insurance.
Even though the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010 led to record-low uninsured rates, 27.5 million still had no coverage in 2018. Even more are underinsured, meaning their coverage doesn’t meet their needs or they can’t afford out-of-pocket costs.
The state of the American health care system has shaped the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, with moderates such as former Vice President Joe Biden supporting a public option that
would compete with private insurance, and Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) backing a Medicare for All approach.
Potter sides with the progressives when he says the existing health care system is irreparable.
“I’m absolutely convinced the current structure is a system that cannot be repaired and cannot be tweaked,” he said in a recent interview with The Hill, arguing that private insurance companies aren’t motivated to keep the costs of care low.
“We cannot keep the multipayer system in place and just add a public option. That’s not going to work. That’s just going to add even more complexity to the system,” he said.
While he’s in touch with both Sanders’s and Warren’s presidential campaigns, Business for Medicare for All says it will not be making any endorsements.
He also meets with lawmakers on Capitol Hill — both Republicans and Democrats — to urge them to support Medicare for All.
Potter is a close ally of Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the main sponsor of the Medicare for All bill in the House, which has the support of 118 Democrats.
Sanders’s Senate bill has 14 co-sponsors.
Potter, 68, was born and raised in Tennessee. He was employed in several journalism and public relations jobs before joining Humana in 1989, and 20 years in health insurance gave him exposure to the financial and medical side of the industry as he crafted lobbyist talking points to “scare people away from changing” it.
He said similar talking points are still deployed today against Medicare for All, including the use of
phrases such as “government-run health care” and “socialized medicine.”
The language, Potter said, is “chosen to scare people” by companies that “have spent decades trying to get people to be afraid of their own government, to distrust government and to think that anything provided by the government is inferior to what private businesses offer.”
“It’s been enormously successful.”
It’s his knowledge of the inner workings of the industry, he said, that gives Potter the credibility in the fight against insurance companies and others in the health care industry that have spent millions of dollars attacking single-payer systems.
In July, he became the president of a new nonprofit called Business for Medicare for All, which makes the economic argument for the proposal and also serves as the voice in Washington for its members, which include 2,800 businesses and employers in 49 states, including food delivery service Postmates and Ben and Jerry’s, the Vermont-based ice cream company whose founders back Sanders.
“They are job creators. Their voice is important, and they need to have an organization like ours to make sure that policymakers and the public hear from the business community about how the system is no longer working for them,” Potter said.
Most Americans who have health insurance get it through work, and that coverage is getting more expensive every year, both for businesses and their employees.
In 2019, the average premium for a family of four was more than $20,000, with employers covering about $15,000 of that, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey.
“In the past, it’s just been assumed that businesses were not going to be in favor of Medicare for All because it would be moving away from the so-called free market in terms of health care coverage to a central way of financing health care,” Potter said.
Groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — the behemoth lobbying group that represents 3 million businesses — vehemently oppose Medicare for All. The Chamber is one of the most powerful forces in Washington, spending $95 million on lobbying in 2018.
Business for Medicare for All is much smaller. Its members are mostly small businesses because they’re the ones most impacted by high health care costs.
Potter aims to reach 10,000 members by the end of 2020. He’s also eyeing larger players; he wouldn’t name names but said he’s had conversations with some “big companies.”
“A lot of people at big companies … are beginning to realize that they have been sold a bill of goods by the insurance industry,” he said.