Wendell Potter choked up a few times
recalling the events that turned him from the chief spokesman for
health insurer Cigna Corp. into a whistle-blower, denouncing the very
practices he used to defend.
Potter, speaking Tuesday at a San Francisco conference where he
received an award from the Civil Justice Foundation, paused as he
described seeing hundreds of desperate people waiting in long lines for
free care when he visited a mobile clinic on the fairgrounds in Wise
County, Va., in July 2007, when he still worked as an insurance
"I still can’t find the words to tell you how deeply this affected
me," said Potter, who said his experience in Wise County was a key
turning point that spurred him to quit his job at Cigna in May 2008
after nearly 20 years in the health insurance industry.
Potter garnered national attention on June 24 as a star witness
before the Senate Commerce Committee, detailing such industry practices
as purging, the dumping of small businesses when their employees make
medical claims that exceed expectations, and sending
explanation-of-benefits documents that are so incomprehensible that
policyholders can’t tell what services they’re getting.
Potter, now a senior fellow with the Center for Media and Democracy,
a watchdog group, testified as part of the release of a Senate
committee staff report that accused the health insurance industry of
systematically underpaying for out-of-network care.
The wrestling match between the industry and President Obama’s
effort to expand health coverage, along with his promotion of a public
plan as an alternative to private insurance, has made the former
executive’s testimony especially timely.
"The average family doesn’t really understand why Wall Street
determines whether they can get coverage, whether they can keep it," he
told the San Francisco audience, describing the industry as beholden to
the bottom line as opposed to care.
His former employer, Cigna, said in a statement that the company
agrees with Potter that the health care system needs reform, but it
opposes a government-sponsored option, which Potter supports.
In addition to the medical clinic in Wise County, Potter said, the
other major event that led to his change of heart was his company’s
handling of the case of Nataline Sarkisyan, a 17-year-old leukemia
patient from Northridge (Los Angeles County) seeking a liver
transplant. Cigna denied the transplant, only to reverse its decision
hours before her death on Dec. 20, 2007.
Potter’s replacement at Cigna, Chris Curran, defended the company’s
actions and said the U.S. District Court for the Central District of
California in April dismissed all of the claims against Cigna related
to the coverage decision.
E-mail Victoria Colliver at [email protected].