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We Cared About Numbers, Not People: Former CIGNA PR Chief Comes Clean

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"When you're in the executive offices... you don't think about individual people. You think about the numbers and whether or not you're going to meet Wall Street's expectations... That enables you to stay there, if you don't really think that you're talking about and dealing with real human beings, " Wendell Potter, former head of Corporate Communications for health insurance giant told Bill Moyers in his recently aired program.

Potter, who voluntarily left a life of corporate jets and managing media information, got a wakeup call when he attended a so-called health fair on a trip back home to the South.

"What I saw were doctors who were set up to provide care in animal stalls. Or they'd erected tents, to care for people. I mean, there was no privacy. In some cases -- and I've got some pictures of people being treated on gurneys, on rain-soaked pavement.

And I saw people lined up, standing in line or sitting in these long, long lines, waiting to get care. People drove from South Carolina and Georgia and Kentucky, Tennessee -- all over the region, because they knew that this was being done. A lot of them heard about it from word of mouth.

There could have been people and probably were people that I had grown up with. They could have been people who grew up at the house down the road, in the house down the road from me. And that made it real to me."

In his conversation with Moyers, Potter also revealed how health insurance PR execs sought to marginalize Michael Moore's film Sicko, dissuade Democratic legislators from addressing the concerns the film raised about the quality of American health care and the uninsured, and defeat health reform under Clinton.

Currently, these same insurance PR folks are "working relentlessly to kill off efforts to include a public insurance plan in the health care bill. Although three quarters of Americans polled support a public option, the industry is spending more than 1.4 million dollars a day to make sure it doesn't happen," said Moyers.

In the show Porter details the kinds of messages that that daily dose of $1.4 million will buy, recounting in the past how the industry sought to discredit Moore by characterizing him as a "radical" and "Hollywood film-maker."

WENDELL POTTER: They don't want you to think that it was a documentary that had some truth. They would want you to see this as just some fantasy that a Hollywood filmmaker had come up with. That's part of the strategy.

BILL MOYERS: So you would actually hear politicians mouth the talking points that had been circulated by the industry to discredit Michael Moore.

WENDELL POTTER: Absolutely.

The insurance industry's "war on Sicko" reveals the kinds of tactics and disinformation in use now to discredit a public option in health insurance reform -- and to line up Congressional support to defeat it.

Moyers asked about how the industry acts to influence Congress.

WENDELL POTTER: By running ads, commercials in your home district when you're running for reelection, not contributing to your campaigns again, or contributing to your competitor.

Potter also addressed the underlying PR goals:

WENDELL POTTER: The industry has always tried to make Americans think that government-run systems are the worst thing that could possibly happen to them, that if you even consider that, you're heading down on the slippery slope towards socialism. So they have used scare tactics for years and years and years, to keep that from happening

Watch the show here: http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/07102009/watch.html
Read the transcript here: http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/07102009/transcript4.html

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