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Trump’s “great healthcare plan” and opposition to Medicare for All’s “socialism” and Pelosi’s defense of the ACA and opposition to single-payer are both aimed at garnering support from the private insurance industry. Wendell Potter on Reality Asserts Itself hosted by Paul Jay
PAUL JAY: Welcome to Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.
Ten years ago, Wendell Potter had quit his job as a senior executive at CIGNA health insurance. He’d been in the business for about 20 years and had risen to a very senior executive position, head of communications at CIGNA, and he decided he’d had enough. He took a year off to decide what he would do with the rest of his life. Well, here’s what he decided to do.
WENDELL POTTER [CLIP]: It recently became abundantly clear to me that the industry’s charm offensive—which is the most visible part of duplicitous and well-financed PR and lobbying campaigns — may well shape reform in a way that benefits Wall Street far more than average Americans …. The industry and its backers are using fear tactics, as they did in 1994, to tar a transparent, publicly-accountable health care option as a “government-run system.” But what we have today, Mr. Chairman, is a Wall Street-run system that has proven itself an untrustworthy partner to its customers, to the doctors and hospitals who deliver care, and to the state and federal governments that attempt to regulate it.
PAUL JAY: That was June 24, 2009. And that kicked off the rest of Wendell Potter’s life, where he became a fighter for health care reform, consumer rights advocacy, fighting to keep money out of politics, and now working in investigative journalism. He’s the author of several books; Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans, also with Nick Penniman, he wrote Nation on the Take: How Big Money Corrupts Our Democracy and What We Can Do About It. And his new project is Tarbell.org, a website which does investigative journalism into how money in politics impacts millions of Americans. Thanks for joining us.
WENDELL POTTER: My pleasure, Paul. Thank you.
PAUL JAY: So normally on Reality Asserts Itself, we do this sort of biographical and then we get into the issues. But because of all the recent brouhaha about how the Republican Party is going to become the party of great health care, and the Democrats all now fighting Trump on health care after the Mueller report didn’t give them what they wanted, at least not so far, we’re going to start with this current iteration of the health care debate. And then in following segments we’ll get into the more biographical issue, and then we’ll pick up again drilling into the whole health care and some of the other issues you’re interested in.
WENDELL POTTER: Sure.
PAUL JAY: So as we say, Trump–there’s a court case going on, they’re trying to rule the Obamacare as unconstitutional. Trump’s jumping on that, saying now we’re going to have an opportunity to do a Republican health care plan. Nancy Pelosi is taking him up on it, saying no, they need to fix the ACA, Affordable Healthcare Act. In the wings, people are running for president, many of whom are various versions of Medicare for All, single payer health care. What do you make of the politics of all this?
WENDELL POTTER: Well, the politics of all of it is that nothing is actually going to happen in Congress one way or another that will affect our health care system, even though Pelosi and Schumer are saying–well, at least Pelosi–they’re going to be able to introduce some legislation to, as they put it, “shore up the Affordable Care Act.” That’s not going to go anywhere. Even if they pass it in the house, it’ll surely not pass the Senate and never reach the president’s desk.
The president has really got Republicans in Congress quite concerned, because he has said publicly–and he’s had to backtrack–he’s said that the Republicans would come up with some kind of bill to replace the Affordable Care Act, which they spent years saying they would try to do and never did. And of course, he said that his administration would support this lawsuit that is challenging the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. That actually could work its way through the court system and even reach the Supreme Court this year or next. No one knows exactly how long it would take. But that could–if the Supreme Court upholds a decision in a Texas court–that could really undo the Affordable Care Act. That’s where things stand right now. But in terms of legislation, don’t expect to see anything out of either chamber that will reach the president’s desk.
PAUL JAY: Now, a lot of this is positioning for the 2020 elections.
WENDELL POTTER: Absolutely.
PAUL JAY: On both sides. In terms of the judicial process, I mean, how quickly can this proceed. If, for example, the Supreme Court found against the ACA–although previously, not that dissimilar numbers of the court. Roberts went with saying the ACA was constitutional, but there’s some new twist with the case this time that maybe would change his vote. I mean, what timeframe might this happen in, and how realistic is it that Roberts may go the other way this time?
WENDELL POTTER: Well, the case is being appealed. The decision of the Texas federal court which sided with the attorneys general of the Republican states that filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law, that is being appealed at a federal appeals court in New Orleans. Don’t know exactly when we’ll hear about that case, but I would expect probably that that case will overturn the Texas judge’s decision. It’s all political, and the judge in New Orleans was appointed by Democrat, so there is some expectation that he will overturn that earlier court decision. Whatever happens, it likely will proceed on to the Supreme Court, because whoever loses probably will try to get it to the Supreme Court. How long that will take is really unknown, but conceivably if the court decides to take it up, it could take it up next year.
PAUL JAY: I mean, one would think, given Trump has so many allies on the Supreme Court, that they will make damn sure that they do not make a decision pre-election, or they will be handing Trump and the Republicans a dog’s breakfast mess, no health care system at all, going into the 2020 elections.
WENDELL POTTER: I think you’re exactly right.
PAUL JAY: So this is a good propaganda move, but this is not… Be careful what you wish for President Trump, because if you get this handed back to you, this is going to kill you in the 2020 election.
WENDELL POTTER: Yeah, it absolutely will. And I think the attorneys general that brought this suit did this. Without really understanding what would happen if this law is declared unconstitutional. And you’re exactly right. If the Supreme Court were to side with those attorneys general, it would be an absolute chaotic mess for the president– for everybody, for that matter, but it would be a disaster–
PAUL JAY: First and foremost for the American people, who will have no idea what their health insurance is anymore.
WENDELL POTTER: Exactly. And it would be worse than the reality of our healthcare system before the Affordable Care Act was passed, because health care costs, they’ve continued to go up. And so, it would be, as you put it, a dog’s breakfast. It would be a real mess. And for that reason, I don’t think we’ll see the Supreme Court being eager to take this up, quite frankly, and they may never do it. But if they do, there are two Trump appointees on the bench now.
PAUL JAY: And for Trump’s base, it makes him look good. Because one of the accusations of the base is how they didn’t repeal and replace Obamacare. Some of the right wing radio pundits give him hell for it and give the Republicans hell for it. So he can now show, “I haven’t given up on this,” even though it’s mostly BS probably. Another kind of BS that’s happening on the side of the Democratic Party–Ryan Grim from The Intercept had an interesting story how behind the scenes, Nancy Pelosi is actually meeting with–or her representatives are–meeting with the private insurance companies and saying, “Don’t worry, we who actually really run the Democratic Party are not interested in single payer Medicare for All style health care.” What do you know about this?
WENDELL POTTER: It’s terrific reporting by Ryan Grim at The Intercept. And it’s been verified that a guy named Wendell Primus, who is Pelosi’s chief healthcare policy guy, was meeting behind closed doors with health insurance company executives, more or less reassuring them that “not to worry, we’re not going to do anything that will bother your profits.” And even more recently, reports surfaced about his having yet another closed door meeting, this time with staff of Democrats in the House, essentially saying, “We know some of you guys have introduced and are cosponsoring a Medicare for All bill. Go slow on that. We’re not going to really pay any attention to that legislation.” So what’s behind this, quite frankly, is money in politics, Paul. Because a lot of the Democratic leaders have taken a boatload of money from the health insurance industry, from the pharmaceutical companies, and they don’t want that to end anytime soon.
PAUL JAY: Yeah. Let me say to our audience go, to Tarbell.org. Because there’s an article there which actually lays out which of the Democrats have gotten money from the health care industry. You’ve done a lot of that kind of reporting.
WENDELL POTTER: We have. And we’re going to continue to take a close look at that. As we go through this election cycle, we’re going to continue to report on which Democrats are on the take, and there are a lot of them in the House in particular. Both in the House and the Senate, but it’s clear that those that have taken a lot of money–and one of those who has is a congresswoman from Illinois, Cheri Bustos, who is now the Chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
PAUL JAY: And if I remember from your article, she’s a former insurance executive as well. You guys went in kind of different directions.
WENDELL POTTER: Exactly. She and I had exactly the same title, Vice President of Corporate Communications. And yes, we went different directions. But she is one of the members of the House, the Democratic Caucus, who’s taken big checks from all five of the political action committees of the big for-profit insurance companies. And she’s, her own self, been throwing cold water on the idea of moving toward a Medicare for All type system. So she’s really carrying water for the health insurance industry.
PAUL JAY: Well, we’ll get into some of the detail of the objections to single payer coming from the Democratic Party and the Republican Party leadership in one of the future segments. But the current situation, I think it’s kind of ironic in some ways. When President Obama got Obamacare passed, he made a deal with pharma that “if you don’t fight me on this health care reform because we’re ‘taking on the private insurance companies’”–I think in the early stages, maybe the private insurance companies didn’t like what was coming, but in the end, watch what happened to their stock once it got passed. They didn’t mind it whatsoever. But in the beginning, they didn’t like the fact that it was even being talked about, how to change the system.
But President Obama says to pharma, “Stay out of this and we’ll leave you guys alone, and we’ll protect you from this importation of Canadian generic drugs and such.” Now it’s a bit of the reverse. Pelosi is saying to the insurance companies, “Don’t worry, we’ll protect you from single payer, Medicare for All, but don’t you fight us, because we want to bring down drug prices,” when the whole thing’s an integrated problem.
WENDELL POTTER: Oh, it is. It is an integrated problem. In fact, all the special interests in health care–we’re talking about insurance companies, drug companies, big hospital companies, medical device manufacturers, the AMA–they have symbiotic relationships. And it’s just foolishness to think that there is any interest among any of those parties, including the insurers, to really do something about bringing down health care costs. There’s a lot of finger-pointing going on, and that serves a useful purpose for them. The drug companies point the finger of blame at insurance companies, and the insurance companies say it’s pharma or the pharmacy benefit managers, which is another layer of middlemen that we might talk about. But it’s an extraordinarily complex system.
PAUL JAY: We’re going to get into this in more detail, but let me just ask you one question. I don’t understand why the insurance companies don’t have a self interest in being more active in reducing certain costs. And I’ll give you an example from my personal experience. My kid needed a CPAP machine for apnea. And for a technician to come to the house, bring the machine, shove it on his head, and in about four minutes, do it up, the insurance company–which wound up getting the whole bill because I’d already met our crazy 3000 dollar deductible for the year–but 2300 dollars for a machine that sells on Amazon for 125 dollars, and ten minutes of this woman’s time. I don’t understand, why do insurance companies put up with that?
WENDELL POTTER: Well, they don’t have any real incentive to bring costs down. They talk a good game. And they sold us, the American public, a bill of goods over many years, trying to make us believe that they can bring costs down, or have an interest in doing that. See, they have kind of a monopoly situation. You are not eligible for Medicare, so you have to get your coverage through the private insurance market. Not one of them, even those big ones, including the big ones that I used to work for, has enough market share to really negotiate favorable deals with the drug companies or big hospital companies. So that’s number one. They’re not big enough, they don’t have enough clout to do it. The other is they don’t have much of a desire to do that, despite what they say. Because as health care costs go up, and because they’re kind of the only game in town for most of us, they’re able to raise premiums.
PAUL JAY: I was about to say, it helps justify crazy deductibles and all the rest.
WENDELL POTTER: Yeah. It’s just a matter of their, over time, being able to shift more and more the cost of premiums and the cost of health care to us. And as health care costs go up and they are able to take in more premiums, that means they get more revenue. So they grow, and they have more revenue to convert to profit. So that’s why it’s all a game, and that’s why all this finger pointing is just nonsense. They’re all in on the game and they’re making out like gangbusters, and the rest of us are getting screwed.
PAUL JAY: OK. On the next segment of Reality Asserts Itself with Wendell Potter, we are going to go back to those days leading up to his testimony at the Senate hearing. And we will go through the process of transitioning from a communication person, executive, defending the private insurance industry, to a communication activist attacking, or exposing, the private insurance industry. That’s on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network. Thanks for joining us.