40 million people may lose their jobs in the coronavirus crisis. Former Cigna VP Wendell Potter says tying health insurance to employment has made the outbreak devastating for people, but not for insurance companies.


Story Transcript

KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Kim Brown. As the federal government readies its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, both from a public health perspective and an economic bailout perspective, one industry you may not think is faring very well during this pandemic is actually doing better than you think. And of course I’m talking about the healthcare insurance lobby and the companies themselves with many stock prices of different healthcare companies that we all know and are familiar with have risen on Wall Street in the past several days since this pandemic has become critical. Why is that? And that doesn’t sound like a very good thing for the average American, especially for those who are dealing with fighting the Coronavirus infection themselves. To get some clarity on this, we’re joined today with Wendell Potter. Wendell is a former executive, former VP at Cigna Healthcare. He has since become a whistleblower. He’s also president of the organization, Medicare for All Now and he joins us today from Philadelphia. Wendell, thank you so much for joining us here on The Real News. WENDELL POTTER: Thank you, Kim. Glad to be here. KIM BROWN: So Wendell, we have a lot of ground to cover here, but you are the author of a viral thread on Twitter where you talked about how in the midst of a pandemic, healthcare insurance companies are about to be raking in lots of profits. How is that even possible? WENDELL POTTER: Well, in a number of ways, they’ve really got it figured out. I’ve often said the one thing that health insurance companies know how to do is to make money under almost any circumstance. One thing that they’re doing is, they’re requiring people to pay a lot of money out of their own pockets these days before their coverage kicks in. Most of us are in high deductible plans. In many cases, Americans have this they paid thousands of dollars out of their own pockets before insurance companies will pay a dime. So the first dollars that would need to be paid for a hospital or to doctors for treatment come out of our own pockets, even with insurance. And that means that a high percentage of us now are under-insured and most of us quite frankly don’t have a lot of money in the bank to even cover our deductibles. The other is that because we don’t really have an alternative, these companies know that if they do start having to pay more claims this year, what they will do next year, and they’ve already said they will do this in a conference call with financial analysts on Wall Street, they’ll just increase their premiums next year significantly. The other thing that’s important is that insurance companies know that because a lot of hospitals are canceling a lot of procedures that are not related to the pandemic like knee replacements or anything that’s not emergency related, those patients are not being admitted now and in many cases are being released from the hospital to make way for COVID-19 patients. So as a result, a lot of the patients that insurance companies would have been paying for their treatment are not there now. And to the point that one of the CEOs of a big insurance company said that he can see that the insurance industry might have even a net savings this year because of the epidemic, which is kind of astonishing. KIM BROWN: Wendell, near the onset of when I suppose the White House began to take this pandemic seriously, President Trump said that he got on the phone with the heads of the big insurance companies and they have agreed to waive copays for COVID-19 testing. But that has not actually been true. WENDELL POTTER: Yeah. What he said was that they had agreed to waive both the co-payments and deductibles for testing and treatment and some of them have said that they will waive the co-payments for testing, which can be expensive, but it’s not nearly, nearly as expensive as treatment is. So testing is one thing, treatment is another, and it’s estimated that in some cases, treatment for COVID-19 can be over $30,000. So insurance companies were very, very quick to correct the president and say that, “No, that’s not the case. We have not agreed to cover the co-insurance or co-payments and deductibles for treatment of COVID-19.” KIM BROWN: Wendell, a lot of experts of the healthcare field, like yourself and others, have said that part of the reason why the COVID-19 pandemic is probably going to be worse here in the United States because so many people’s healthcare coverage is tied to their employer. And you recently pinned an out bed in The Guardian talking about just that and how the US healthcare system is set up basically for people not to survive this. Can you talk about why this is so critical as opposed to having a Medicare For All system that as people lose their jobs, they lose their access to healthcare and as you said, are going to be facing massive out of pocket costs to even treat this illness? WENDELL POTTER: Yeah. And that’s one huge problem for so many people, but just as bad and in many cases a lot worse is that as any of us are expecting that by the middle of April, just three weeks from now, 40 million Americans may have lost their jobs because of all the shutdowns and companies all across the country are laying people off. Just this week we saw that 3.3 million people filed for unemployment compensation. So we have lived with this system of most people getting their coverage through their employers and even the Democrats. And this makes me so mad. During the debates that we saw last year and earlier this year, Democrats like Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar and Joe Biden said, “People will have their private insurance. They don’t want to be kicked off of their private insurance plans.” I would love to get those people on the stage right now and say, “Now you answer that question because people are losing their jobs every single day. Every single day, people are losing their jobs and along with it, their health insurance.” So we are as a country really up a creek because people, not only if they have insurance, have to pay a lot of money out of their own pocket before insurance companies will pay a dime. And then because so many people get their covers through their jobs that are going away, they’re now in the ranks of the uninsured. So it’s just an incredible mess that we have allowed to continue and our policymakers, Democrats and Republicans alike are complicit in it. KIM BROWN: Wendell, to sort of do a compare and contrast of how other nations are dealing with the outbreak and the pandemic. In Ireland on the 24th of March, the Irish prime minister and the minister of health declared that anyone who was infected with COVID-19 will be treated for free in Ireland, and all private hospitals will be made public there temporarily, at least right now, nationalizing their hospital system and people are going to be receiving treatment for free. Now, I hate to sound pessimistic, but number one, is something like that likely to ever happen here? And second of all, what would that mean for people? What would that look like if everyone who went to the doctor fearing that they had this infection could get tested and also be treated without cost? WENDELL POTTER: It very well could happen. I wouldn’t say that it’s out of the realm of possibilities. Already, hospitals are stretched, they too are suffering under the constraints or the way the insurance companies make them beg for compensation or be paid appropriately and timely. So they have to have staffs of people who do nothing but that. But now we’re seeing that they’re potentially going to be overflowing with patients. And as this gets worse in this country, which it undoubtedly will, it could be so bad that the government might have to say that we need to take over a lot of these hospitals. And already we’re seeing that hotels, I think I read this in California, some of the hotels out there, many of them largely vacant because people aren’t traveling, will be used to isolate people who have COVID-19. So we’re going to see some things that this country has never seen before, I believe, with the government having to step in and take over facilities or require that they be made available to patients who have COVID. KIM BROWN: If President Donald Trump called you today and said, “Wendell, I want you on this Coronavirus task force,” what advice would you give him? WENDELL POTTER: I would give him that we need to make sure that everyone in this country has no worry of any financial problems if they get tested or if they get treatment. I would say that you need to by executive order or whatever means necessary to make sure that insurance companies are not serving as barriers to people getting tested and the care that they need. And I would say that we need to pull out all the stops to make sure the hospitals have the resources they need. And that includes having ventilators, which he’s saying that doesn’t seem to be quite as much of a problem as Governor Paul and others are saying it is. But also protective gear for doctors and nurses. I’ve heard from so many people who are on the front lines, doctors as well as nurses who say that even their hospital administrators are saying, “Don’t wear your protective gear outside of the rooms of any patients other than those being treated for COVID-19,” because the administrators are concerned that that might alarm other patients and visitors. It’s just an insane thing that’s going on and the government really needs to step in and do a lot more to make sure that doctors and nurses are protected. We can’t afford for them to get sick and not be able to treat patients. Hospitals need to make sure that they’re getting paid appropriately and timely and not have to spend enormous amounts of staff time dealing with insurance companies. And patients need to make sure that they’re not going to be harmed financially if they get sick. KIM BROWN: And lastly, Wendell, you’re joining us today from Philadelphia. Can you give us an idea about how things look from your corner of the world? What are the streets like? How are the people responding to the new measures that we all are dealing with? And also how, in your opinion, are Philadelphia and Pennsylvania’s elected officials and healthcare officials effectively handling this pandemic? WENDELL POTTER: Here in Philadelphia, it’s always sunny in Philadelphia, right? We’ve got a sunny day here. It’s very pleasant. But you go outside–and I’d walked my dog outside a couple of times now–the streets, there are very, very few cars, very few people on the sidewalks. It’s almost like a holiday, like Christmas, which most people are staying inside. It’s been that way for days. Mayor Kenney of Philadelphia and Governor Wolf of Pennsylvania, I think, have been appropriately advising people and making sure that businesses are shut down except those that are critical to be open and to have people make sure that they’re staying in and keeping six feet apart. People here, at least in Philadelphia that I’ve seen, seem to be taking that to heed and I know my family and I are. KIM BROWN: We’ve been speaking with Wendell Potter. Wendell is the President of Medicare For All Now. He’s also a former health insurance CEO, formerly of Cigna, now turned whistleblower. His latest piece in The Guardian is titled: Millions of Americans are about to lose their health insurance in a pandemic. Be sure to check it out. Wendell, we appreciate your time and your expertise today? Thank you so much. WENDELL POTTER: Thank you, Kim. KIM BROWN: And thank you for watching The Real News.  

Wendell Potter

Wendell Potter is a journalist and former health insurance executive. His books include the New York Times bestseller "Deadly Spin, An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR Is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans," and "Nation on the Take: How Big Money Corrupts Our Democracy and What We Can Do About It." His most recent project is Tarbell.org, a nonprofit investigative and solutions news site that will launch later this year.