MSNBC’s Chris Matthews had a good laugh during a recent segment about the five biggest political lies of 2010. PolitiFact gave the top prize to Republicans and pundits who repeatedly lied—and got away with it—by calling the healthcare bill a “government takeover.”
After showing multiple clips of Republicans repeating the same lie over and over again, Matthews could barely contain his laughter. “Are we watching a Woody Allen movie here?” he asked his guests. “Do they get all their talking points from Frank Luntz? Some guy down on the beach in Santa Monica is knocking out the terminology. The lingo in these people. Don’t they know they sound like parrots?”
Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown replied by saying that Republicans get away with the lies because they are never challenged during interviews or asked to define the word ‘takeover.’ Matthews ignored the comment, but did say the healthcare bill is an insurance company takeover. He later wondered if the Heritage Foundation wrote the talking points.
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They actually came from Wendell Potter and his health insurance colleagues. Potter is former head of corporate communications for CIGNA, one of the largest for-profit health insurance companies in the United States. Potter, who spent 20 years working for CIGNA and Humana, was the main media contact for top-level executives. If a journalist wanted an interview, they had to go through Potter; if he thought the interview would be “friendly,” he would approve it. He always sat in on the interview and says journalists rarely challenged executives or asked difficult questions.
In 2008, his conscience got the best of him after visiting the Remote Area Medical’s healthcare fair in Wise County, Virginia and saw people standing and sitting in long lines, waiting for free care. “They were treating people in animal stalls and barns. It looked like it might have been a war torn country. I could not believe this was the United States of America.”
Shortly after leaving his six-figure job, he decided to expose and speak out against the very practices he once defended.
In his new book, Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR Is Killing Health Care And Deceiving Americans, he writes, “If you are among those who believe that the U.S. has the best healthcare system in the world—despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary— it’s because my fellow spinmeisters and I succeeded brilliantly at what we were paid very well to do with your premium dollars.”
“And if you were persuaded that the health care bill President Barack Obama signed into law in March 2010 was a ‘government takeover of the health care system,’ my former colleagues and I earned every penny of our handsome salaries.”
The talking points are designed to be simple, catchy, and memorable. Think government takeover of healthcare, death panels, and socialism.
“And you have to say them over and over and over again. And if you hear them often enough, you think it’s true,” says Potter. “That’s why people, even today, think that the legislation created death panels. Obviously it never had anything approaching that kind of provision. People think this legislation is a government takeover of the healthcare system. In reality, it props up our private healthcare system. It guarantees that these private insurance companies are going to be profitable for years and years to come. It will require us to buy their products and it doesn’t include a public option, which we needed to have.”
Potter says once the talking points are written, they are distributed on Capitol Hill. The process is simple, but it’s done discreetly. “You don’t hand them to a member of Congress, but you develop very good relationships with staff members. That’s key.”
He says he also cultivated relationships with television producers and reporters, who, in turn, handed them to pundits and the talking heads on cable shows. As we now know, the lies worked brilliantly.
Potter says he wrote Deadly Spin to show how a huge share of healthcare premiums bankroll relentless propaganda and lobbying efforts focused on protecting profits. The book is as much about public relations and spin as it is about healthcare.
“Without basic knowledge of PR tactics and the ability to distinguish between fact and distortion, Americans—and that includes journalists, both professional and citizen—are at the mercy of spin doctors and the public relations practitioners whose loyalty to their clients outweighs the public’s right to the truth,” he writes.
One of the many incidents that pushed Potter to speak out happened shortly after the March 5, 2009 White House Health Care Summit at which Karen Ignagni, president of the insurance lobby America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), told President Obmaa he could count on her and the insurance industry. “We want to work with the members of Congress on a bipartisan basis here. You have our commitment. We hear the American people about what’s not working. We’ve taken that seriously,” she said. “You have our commitment to play, to contribute, and to help pass health care reform this year.”
Potter says it was one of her best performances to date. President Obama responded by saying, “Good. Thank you, Karen. That’s good news. That’s America’s Health Insurance Plans.” Potter said the President was played like a “Stradivarius by one of the best lobbyists to ever hit Washington.”
According to Potter, Ignagni is one of Washington’s most effective communicators and—with a salary and bonuses of $1.94 million in 2008—one of the highest-paid special interest advocates in Washington.
According to a recent Bloomberg report, AHIP, whose members include CIGNA and Humana, gave $86 million to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to oppose the healthcare bill. “By funneling the money through the Chamber,” says the report, “insurers were able to remain at the table negotiating with Democrats while still getting the bill criticized.”
On March 9, 2009, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews interviewed Mike Tuffin, AHIP’s executive vice president of strategic communications. In the introduction, Matthews said, “The same people who helped kill the Clinton’s efforts back in the ‘90s are on the other side now. Times have changed. The worm has turned. The cosmos have shifted. Some of the bad guys are becoming perhaps the good guys.”
“There was no doubt about it: Tuffin was on the show as part of AHIP’s charm offensive,” writes Potter. “And just like Obama, Matthews seemed to be falling for it.”
Potter also writes about Health Care America, a “non-partisan, non-profit healthcare” front group formed to discredit Michael Moore and his healthcare documentary Sicko. A quick search would show that there was nothing non-partisan about Health Care America. It was set up by APCO Worldwide, one of the country’s largest and most powerful public relations firms.
Not only did APCO succeed in getting their talking points into most of the stories that appeared about the film, writes Potter, but “not a single reporter had done enough investigative work to find out that insurers had provided the lion’s share of funding to set up Health Care America.”
Potter says even though the health insurance bill has passed, the spin continues. The health insurance industry, banks, weapons manufacturers, and oil companies won’t lose their power until their lies are challenged and the public understands how spin and manipulation works. “We will never be free of spin, but we can be wise to it, and we can push back against it. There is too much at stake not to try.”
Part One: Wendell Potter Interview
Part Two: Wendell Potter Interview
Rose Aguilar is the host of “Your Call,” a daily call-in radio show on KALW 91.7 FM in San Francisco and on KUSP 88.9 FM in Santa Cruz. She is author of “Red Highways: A Liberal’s Journey Into the Heartland.”