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After Pushing Lies, Former Cigna Executive Praises Canada's Health Care System


We're going to turn back now to the coronavirus pandemic, which has been the major story around the world these past few months. And one of the things exposed by the crisis has been the wildly varying quality and form of health systems around the globe. This week, a former Cigna health insurance executive went on Twitter to highlight how much better he says Canada's COVID response has been compared to that of the U.S. And he made what he called a confession, writing, quote, "amid America's COVID-19 disaster, I must come clean about a lie I spread as a health insurance exec. We spent big money to push the idea that Canada's single-payer system was awful and the U.S. system much better. It was a lie, and the nation's COVID responses prove it. I'll regret slandering Canada's system for the rest of my life," unquote.

That was just part of Wendell Potter's Twitter thread, so we've called him to hear more. And he is with us now from Philadelphia. Welcome, Mr. Potter. Thank you for joining us.

WENDELL POTTER: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Your tweets have really made a splash, with both Americans and Canadians weighing in about the issue. I do want to mention that, you know, you've actually been talking about this for a while. But I'm just wondering, you know, why now? I mean, why do you - what inspired you to post this thread now? And why do you think it's having such a response?

POTTER: Well, two reasons. One, yes, you're right. I have been talking about this for quite a long time. But I hadn't talked very fairly recently about what I used to do for a living as it pertained to vilifying the Canadian health care system. I was recently on a webinar. One of the speakers was from British Columbia, and she was talking about the different approaches the countries that take in Canada and the United States and how the Canadians, it seemed, were quite better prepared than the U.S. was. And the incidence of COVID has been lower in Canada, and the deaths per capita in Canada have been significantly lower.

Canada has done a better job, I think, because of having the kind of health care system you have in making sure that everyone who needs to be treated is treated. And so that was what prompted that. And I felt that to provide some context, I needed to describe what I used to do for a living to try to scare people away from the Canadian health care system because insurance companies fear that. They know that if the U.S. moves to a system like that, it would certainly put a real crimp in their profits.

MARTIN: So let's talk about your role in this. In one of your tweets, you say, "here's the truth. Our industry PR and lobbying group, AHIP, supplied my colleagues and me with cherry-picked data and anecdotes to make people think Canadians wait endlessly for their care. It's a lie. And I'll always regret the disservice I did to folks on both sides of the border," unquote. Did you know at the time these things were lies? Or is this something you subsequently learned?

POTTER: I was becoming concerned, as it was necessary for me to spread this misinformation, and it really began in 2006. And that was sort of when my crisis of conscience began, and it pertained to the premiere of Michael Moore's movie "Sicko." And part of our campaign to push back against that movie was to spread misinformation about Canada or use cherry-picked data and anecdotes. For example, AHIP sent me and my counterparts at other insurance companies a binder just as that movie was premiering with bullet points of things that we should say in our conversations with reporters and others about the Canadian system or the British or French system for that matter but, particularly, the Canadian system. These really were cherry-picked data points and was not in any way painting an accurate portrayal of the Canadian health care system.

MARTIN: So why did you do it?

POTTER: You know, I was believing my own PR for a long time. I rose up through the ranks. I had a good job. I was leading corporate communications at Cigna when I left. I was able to kind of compartmentalize as well, too, but also keep myself removed from the problems that so many people in this country are facing when it comes to getting care that they need and can afford. But on the other hand, if I hadn't done that, I wouldn't know what I know. And I've been one of the very few people who has some insider information to share with the public and with policymakers. I've testified before Congress many times and written lots of columns and done lots of media work to try to help people understand our system better and how it compares and contrasts to other systems around the world.

MARTIN: What was that aha moment for you? Do you remember it?

POTTER: Oh, I sure do remember it. There were two or three. But the real aha moment for me came when I went back home to visit my family in east Tennessee, where I grew up. I just happened to read about something that was called a health care expedition that was being held at a county fairground close to where I grew up. And I'd never heard of it because I lived away from there for many years and just happened to be there that weekend. And it said people would be driving from hundreds of miles away to get care that was being provided at this county fairground over three days, and it was free. And it said people typically would spend two or three nights in their cars waiting to get in to get treated.

I went there out of curiosity. And when I got there, I just was absolutely stunned at what I saw. I just couldn't imagine that I was still in the United States. When I walked through the fairground gates, I saw people who were lined up by the hundreds waiting to get care, and it was truly an epiphany. I also realized that what I was doing for a living - I had to take some responsibility for that because I was perpetuating myths about the Canadian health care system, myths about this health care system in this country, spreading this information to protect profits for my company and for the industry. And I was a journalist in my first career, a newspaper reporter. And I realized, also, that what I was doing for a living was in many ways the exact opposite of what I tried to do as a reporter, which was to be accurate.

And I just for various reasons felt, gosh, I - what happened to me? I looked in the mirror at one point. I said, what happened to you? How did this happen? And I made a decision soon after that that I would have to find some other way to earn a living. And it wasn't too long after that that I did leave.

MARTIN: That's Wendell Potter. He is the former head of corporate communications at Cigna Health Insurance and the current CEO of Medicare for All NOW. That's a nonprofit group that advocates for universal access to health care. Mr. Potter, thanks so much for talking to us.

POTTER: Thank you, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF DECAP'S "WAKE UP!") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.