The Making of a Health-Care Whistle-Blower

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Mark Wilson / Getty

Former Cigna vice president Wendell Potter speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill on Aug. 12 after testifying about health-care legislation that is before Congress

Correction appended, Oct. 22, 2009

Wendell Potter may be the ideal whistle-blower. The former head of corporate communications for health-insurance giant Cigna, Potter turned against his old colleagues in June to testify before a congressional committee about what he viewed as the health-insurance industry's "duplicitous" behavior in the current health-reform debate. In his testimony, Potter outlined specific techniques insurers employ to "dump the sick" and protect stock price at all costs. His testimony was logical, specific and convincing, but that's only part of what makes Wendell Potter a perfect turncoat in the eyes of the pro-reform movement.

The other part is his manner. Before Congress, at subsequent pro-reform rallies around the country, and in the many television interviews Potter grants, he plays the role of the soft-spoken dad, calmly laying out his indictment of the for-profit insurance industry with a slight Tennessee twang, his gray hair buzzed and a pair of wire-rimmed glasses perched on his nose. He isn't prone to hyperbole and, despite his having become a whistle-blower to "make amends" for the wrong he feels he did as a health-insurance executive, Potter is eerily calm, an island of serenity in the midst of the reform debate currently playing out at raucous town-hall meetings and amid charges of Nazism and racism. His effective communication technique is not accidental — Potter, after all, spent two decades working as a public-relations expert.

Potter's moment of decision came one evening earlier this year when he was watching MSNBC's Chris Matthews talk about how "the cosmos has shifted" this time around, that the health-insurance industry was at the negotiating table and on board with reform. Potter thought to himself, "Oh, jeez, Chris. Give me a break." Potter, who retired from Cigna in May 2008 after he became disillusioned with the for-profit health-insurance industry, decided to end his silence. (Potter's conversion was prompted in part by the 2007 case of 17-year-old Natalie Sarkisyan, who died shortly after Cigna initially denied her coverage for a liver transplant. Then presidential candidate John Edwards used the case as an example of why health-care reform was necessary.)

An old acquaintance helped usher Potter out of obscurity. Avram Goldstein was once a reporter for Bloomberg News who met Potter while writing about Cigna. Goldstein, who now works for the pro-reform advocacy group Health Care for America Now!, heard that Potter was quietly reaching out to some pro-reform advocates about possibly going public. "I called him, and I said, 'Is this true? Are you seriously interested in this?,' " remembers Goldstein. "And he said, 'Yes, I think I am.' He had a little bit of trepidation." Goldstein helped connect Potter with Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller, who chairs the committee before which Potter ultimately appeared. Since then, "his activism has been nothing short of astonishing," says Goldstein. "He's a soft-spoken, serious man and has tremendous credibility."

Potter is now the only health-insurance insider to lambaste — on the record — the industry's motives. Potter warns that the industry's cooperation, which has been hailed by Democrats, is hogwash, a "charm offensive" designed to disguise its true motive: profit. "This is just a repeat of what they've done before," says Potter, who was hired by Cigna around the time of President Clinton's push for reform in the early 1990s. Insurers were then, as now, pledging change in order to improve health care for Americans.

Unlike Jeffrey Wigand, the tobacco-industry whistle-blower made famous in the movie The Insider, Potter doesn't have a smoking gun or secret documents to unveil. He signed a confidentiality agreement before leaving Cigna and intends to honor it. "I have no intention of disclosing any proprietary information," he says. For-profit health-insurance-industry practices Potter talks about, like rescission — dropping expensive-to-cover policyholders on grounds that they failed to disclose pre-existing health conditions — are not secrets. This is, in fact, how private health insurers make profits. In Potter's view, these practices just need more exposure, which he's happy to provide — on cable news or through his well-read blog for the nonpartisan public-interest group the Center for Media and Democracy.

Although he's busy, Potter now earns far less than he did at Cigna, where he made "in the six figures." He's a nonsalaried consultant for the Center for Media and Democracy but has health-insurance coverage through his wife, who manages a Banana Republic store. It's a low-cost, high-deductible plan — a model that provides coverage for catastrophic illness but kicks in only after the policyholder spends thousands of dollars out of pocket first. In other words, it's an insurance-industry-friendly model that companies like Cigna would like to see spread under health-reform legislation still being written on Capitol Hill. Potter, in his newfound life as a health-insurance-industry critic, opposes this. "If you make $30,000 and you're the sole breadwinner, this is putting you in trouble if you get sick," he says calmly.

Stardom has inundated Potter with pleas to speak at pro-reform events around the country. He obliges nearly every time, relieved at "being able to say what I really believe" after so many years as a tight-lipped health-insurance public-relations executive. Still, he isn't entirely comfortable being a health-reform celebrity. "Even as I'm living this, it seems like there's another Wendell Potter out there and I'm somehow observing this," he says. "I was in Oregon [at a rally] and I heard someone whisper, 'There's Wendell Potter.' That was a very odd thing." Plus, his decision to go public has come at a cost — mostly in the form of friendships with former colleagues. "They're not people I go out and have a beer with these days, that's for sure. But I'm not saying I've lost them as friends forever," says Potter. On the other hand, he adds, "I've got a lot of new friends."

The original version of this article incorrectly indentified Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia as a Representative.