President Obama and Congress: If You Missed Wise County, Join Me in L.A.

The insurance industry, its business allies and its shills in Congress are doing their best once again to scare us away from real health care reform, just as they did 15 years ago. Using the same tactics and language they did then, insurers and their cronies are warning us that America will be sliding down a slippery slope toward socialism if the federal government creates a public insurance option to compete with the cartel of huge for-profit companies that now dominate the health insurance industry.

One of the false images they try to create in our minds is of long waits for needed care if our reformed health care system resembles in any way the systems of other developed countries in the world--systems that don't deny a single citizen access to affordable care, much less 50 million of them.

Here is a real image, and a very scary one, that I wish those overpaid insurance executives and members of Congress could have witnessed before dawn a few days ago: a thousand men, women and children standing for hours, in the dark, in a line that seemed to be endless, waiting patiently for a chance -- a chance because the need is so great many are turned away -- to get much-needed care from a volunteer doctor.

That is the scene they would have witnessed if they had bothered to come to the Wise County, Virginia, fairgrounds for the 10th annual Remote Area Medical (RAM) Expedition, a thee-day event in the southern Appalachians that grows larger every year as more and more Americans join the ranks of the uninsured and the underinsured.

Among those standing in line were people who thought they had decent health insurance until they really needed it. They found out the hard way that the policies insurers are forcing most of us into these days require us to put much more "skin in the game," as insurers say, so we will be more prudent "consumers" of health care.

When I came to the Wise expedition as a curious insurance company public relations executive two years ago, I was so shaken by what I saw that I knew immediately I was doing PR for the wrong side of the health care reform debate. A few months after that I walked away from a job that paid me very well to be one of the industry's mouthpieces.

When I returned to Wise last week, this time as someone trying to pull the curtain back on despicable insurance industry practices such as "purging" people from insurance rolls when they become sick, I was even angrier, even more outraged at what passes for a health care system than I was in 2007.

Knowing the industry as I do, it takes extraordinary callowness and heartlessness to surprise me. I didn't think I was capable of being shocked by insurers' greed.

I was wrong. What I learned is that many people who stand in those long lines at RAM events (the Wise expedition is the organization's 575th), are people who have been told by their insurance companies that they should call RAM if they don't have enough money to get needed care because they can't afford to pay their out-of-pocket expenses.

That's right, insurance company bureaucrats, who are under constant pressure from Wall Street analysts and investors to spend less and less of every premium dollar they receive from us to pay medical claims, are telling their policyholders to seek charity care. They are telling them to go stand in long lines, in the dark, at events held once a year, to get the care they thought their insurance companies would pay for just so they can put more of their premium dollars in the pockets of their executives and shareholders.

When I heard that I asked how much money RAM, a nonprofit organization that depends entirely on donations, has received this year -- or any year for that matter--from the insurance industry. I knew the answer but wanted to ask it anyway. If you guessed nothing, you guessed right.

Back in the early '90s, when the insurance industry was spending millions of dollars, as it is now, to scare us away from any additional involvement of the federal government in our health care system, one of the executives I wrote speeches for quoted 18th century economist Adam Smith's famous line about the ruthless "invisible hand" of the market in calling for less, rather than more, government regulation of the industry.

He was right: the invisible hand has indeed been ruthless. Fifteen years after he gave that speech, far more Americans are uninsured and underinsured. Millions of people have lost their homes or filed for bankruptcy because they couldn't afford to pay their medical bills. Thousands of our family members and neighbors have died needlessly because they didn't go to the doctor or pick up their prescriptions because they didn't have adequate insurance.

On behalf of the millions of men, women and children who will suffer the same fate unless Congress passes real reform this year, I am issuing this invitation to President Obama and members of Congress: join me at the next RAM event, which will be held over eight days next month in Los Angeles (August 11-18).

Congress, if you must take your August vacation, spend a day or two of it -- or a few minutes of it, if that's all you can spare--helping to register the many thousands of your fellow Americans who will be standing in long lines, in the dark, waiting for the doors of the Forum to open. Chances are you visited the Forum in years past to see the Lakers play. Be prepared this time to see it fulfilling an entirely different function, and be prepared to look those folks in the eye and explain why you needed to go on vacation before passing health care reform. And explain to them why many of you are saying we just can't afford reform, so let's just call the whole thing off and let the private market continue to work its ruthless magic.

Remember, Congress: while you are on vacation, 150,000 Americans will lose their insurance, many of them will file for bankruptcy because of mounting medical bills, and at least 1,500 will die because they don't have coverage that gives them access to care they need.

I'm looking forward to seeing you in L.A.

Wendell Potter is the Senior Fellow on Health Care for the Center for Media and Democracy in Madison, Wisconsin. A version of this article originally appeared on the Huffington Post.


I just watched online, Bill Moyers interviewing you, and also your testimony in Congress. I was both happy and depressed. Happy, because an industry insider is finally fighting back against the crushing power of the insurance industry. Your message is right on taget. Depressed, because I can't help wondering how we are ever going to overcome the industry's power, when so many members of congress are bought and paid for with insurance company profits. What chance does America have for real reform against such power? Depressed, too, because your interview was on PBS. You need to be speaking out where everyone can see you, during popular TV shows like football games or Survivor or American Idol, that draw millions, not on PBS where you're already "preaching to the choir" (and sadly a very small choir at that). Sadly, I don't think money can be raised to put you speaking out where everyone will hear you. In my spare time, I do volunteer work with an organization called Change That Works. I've personally spoken to about 60 people, and 55 of them had health care horror stories (many that brought tears to my eyes, like the young mom with breast cancer whose insurance company basically told her to either file bankruptcy or die and leave her kids with no parents), and we have sent these stories to congress. All of our Change That Works volunteers are sending stories by the dozens to Congress, but I fear these stories will fall on deaf ears since lobbyists have already bought them off. But what sticks in my mind is the 80-year-old man who loudly argued with me that "There's not a damn thing wrong with health care in this country!" I wish he could tell that to my older brother. But sadly, my brother passed away last year at age 55. See, Richie was a musician, a brilliant composer of very original music. He had no health insurance, couldn't afford it. When he got bone marrow cancer two years ago, the best he could afford was some emergency-room chemo, and an odd procedure that extracts his bone marrow, spins it reall fast through a centrifuge as if that somehow magically eliminates cancer, and then puts his own cancerous marrow back into him. He went into remission for a couple of months, but since the cancer cells had never really been removed from his marrow, the cancer was soon back and more aggressive than ever. I offered to provide a bone marrow trasplant, but without insurance, the treatment was too expensive so he couldn't do that. One of my brother's chemo treatments, by an emergency room intern, went horribly wrong, and within 30 minutes after he got home, my brother was dead at age 55. A tribute concert was held in his memory. 17 bands played in his memory, and alkl recalled him as brilliant and one band said the precision written into his music made it the most difficult they had ever played. I didn't see a single insurance comapny executive in teh audience, even though they and their greedy policies had killed him just as surely as if they had fired a gun at him. I can no longer share childhood reminisces with Richie, or tell him what's going on in my life, good and bad, or hear about his life, his musical triumphs, and the world has lost a brilliant and innovative composer of original music. His music was never really my cup of tea, but I was always proud of him for his originality and creativity, and I miss him terribly. By the way, his widow, my sister-in-law, also has no medical insurance! If and when she gets ill, that will be a death sentence for her, as it was for her husband. How many more people must die for insurance company profits, before we get real reform? I love that you're speaking out, but you need forums where you'll actually get heard. Only when every American stands up will we have a power equal to the insurance lobby. You need to reach that 80-year-old man who can't tell my now-dead brother about how there's no problem with health care in the good old USA. One more health care story: I was laid off in 2001, and there went my medical insurance! I got on a COBRA plan for me, my wife, and our son, at $850 a month. Being out of work, I had to raid my 401K to pay it, costing me not only the tax on the withdrawn money, but also an early-withdrawl tax penalty. I will have far less to retire on. But also, I could not set-aside any money for our son to go to college. During that time, I fell off a ladder and severly damaged my left hand in the fall; the cost to fix my hand was $65,000; I now have about 95% of my hand functioning back, but at the cost that my son did not go to college. I did eventually get another job and get medical insurance again, but not before huge financial costs to my retirement and my son's ediuctaion. That 80 year old's voice keeps echoing in my head: "There's not a damned thing wrong with health care in this country!" The indutsry you were so long a part of has done a great job of brainwashing citizens and politicians, how do we fight back against that? Even though 55 of the 60 people I've talked to so far support health cae reform, sometimes the battle just seems overhelming, the odds stacked too heavily against us. Keep fighting the good fight, and I will do the same.

Dear Mr. Potter, I was intrigued by an interview I listened to on the radio the other day. Personally I find myself smack in the middle of the debate on health care finance reform (NO ONE is talking about REAL Health CARE reform). As a (still) practicing emergency physician for 25 years I treat (and advocate for) patients (what we used to call members or insured lives). As a consultant for insurance companies I advise them on how to (ethically) control costs and identify billing abuse and fraud (unfortunately it exists). As a patient, and the husband, father, son, and friend of other patients I struggle with the health care "system" just like everyone else. As a (sometime) writer, I have written about the topic ("The Complete Idiot's Guide to Medical Care for the Uninsured"). While there is certainly plenty of blame to go around (on any given issue you can find fault with insurers, doctors, lawyers, hospitals, the media and - dare I say it- even the patients themselves). The question should not be who to blame, but rather how to improve health care and the financing of health care in the United States (and perhaps the world) in the 21st century. If you and others in your organization have a genuine interest in solutions and would like to talk about it with someone who has been "in the trenches" I would welcome the discussion. Sincerely, Mark L Friedman MD FACEP FACP, Assistant Clinical Professor of Trauma and Emergency Medicine UCONN

I saw your interview on Bill Moyer's journal. I want to thank you. It is rare to hear from someone formerly in the ranks of Corporate America express such a heartfelt shift in thinking. As a former "insider" you have much to offer what is currently passing as "health care debate" in this country. We need more people like you who engage with the critical flaws in our system and who can point us in the direction toward creating a new one that will be more responsive to All Americans. As an educator working in a school district, I have found the increasing costs that employees (even in the public sector) are asked to shoulder burdensome. So much so, that last year when my partner lost her job, we could not afford to cover her and the costs of COBRA were out of reach. We were faced with a daunting choice between paying our mortgage (and keeping a roof over our heads) or providing health coverage for our family. We chose the former. My situation is only one of many, but it does go to the heart of the matter. In the most recent spat of scare attacks, those supporting the current system as the best possible argue that employees somehow have access through their employers. This notion does not square for a growing number of Americans. I appreciate the perspective you bring to the discussion. I will be following your blog. I think every American should. I will do my best to get the word out. With much appreciation. cyclingjs

Mr. Potter- Your straightforward and honest assessment of the FOR PROFIT insurance industry is very important for ALL Americans to hear. A group of us has just begun to organize a MASSIVE MARCH on Washington, DC for Labor Day. We are new at this but feel that it is IMPERATIVE to have a HUGE turnout to show Congress some of the faces they are supposed to represent. Can you help us? Anything you could do or suggest would be appreciated. Would you be willing to be a speaker? Please help! Thanks

In response to David on Aug 3, 3009 - I applaud your passion for making the importance of this issue heard loud and clear in Washington. How can one learn more about this effort? I do want to share a word of caution .... this is such a hot-button issue that it is imperative to assure that a peaceful, nonviolent, and constructive message is communicated to not only our legislators but to the American people. The potential for heated commentary has been seen in the town hall meetings held across the country. Please take a lesson from the past and assure that those who march are well-versed and committed to maintaining a Nonviolent response to any potential confrontation. There is so much at stake ..... and so many with strong feelings ..... it's critical that our efforts move the conversation forward to greater understanding and compassion for all points of view.

Thank you Wendell, for your integrity and your courage. I hope we, the American public, win.

For-profit insurance companies have a foremost responsibility to make profits for their shareholders. This makes the companies susceptible to unethical practices towards insureds and providers. However, there are not-for-profit insurers like some Blues plans, and Group Health, Kaiser, etc. They are owned by those who have the policies (co-op or mutual). Do you think they are just as unethical and immoral as the Wall Street driven insurers, or could they be the better 'public option'? Also, do you think the for-profit hospitals are just as ethically and morally challenged as the for profit insurers? Do you think the core problem is the "profit motive"? If so, Medicare, Medicaid, VA, are terribly broken as stated by the govt, yet there is no profit motive there. If the profit motive fuels inacceptable greed, and govt programs fuel unacceptable inefficiency that can't be sustained financially, which is worse? Besides the tax code, medical liability, and immigration needing reform in order to get healthcare costs under control, do you think the answer is single payor ultimately?

I get so frustrated and angry when I see the lies and the liars that must be getting hired by the insurance industry down there to tell you that our Canadian health-care system is second-rate and that we have to wait for months to get treated for our concerns. Thanks for at least trying to set the record straight. The fact is that if you were to poll Canadians on the thing we are moist proud of, to name something we have that the great and mighty US of A doesn't would be our health-care system!---- by a wide margin!! We look at the trouble down there getting basic treatment for injuries that could be life threatening, and shake our heads in amazement over why you all put up with a system that is little different than the one seen in third world dictatorships where ruling elites have the best care available while the people doing the actual work --- and thereby getting injured the most --- are the very people who struggle to get decent attention! It's mind-boggling that First World, apparently advanced people from a modern civilization, would reject something that the rest of us consider to be the inevitable result of a society that embraces basic, human decency!

Hey Gary, if Canadian healthcare system is so great, why don't you talk to my sister that almost died because they put her on a 9 month waiting list, or my dad that had to come back to the states to get his surgeries, because he would have died had he waited. So much for the wonderful Canadian heathcare system!!

Similar thing happened to my sister, whose company wouldn't giver her health insurance because of a pre-existing condition. Then she got qualified for "socialized" Medicaid, AND IT SAVED HER LIFE! I don't believe you are Canadian at all, btw.