Publication:Johnson City Press; Date:Nov 29, 2009; Section:Section B Insight; Page Number:1B

Free market is ineffective in health care sector

    Wendell Potter, a former insurance executive, understands the skepticism many people have regarding the federal government’s role in health care reform. He also knows that many Americans believe the private sector is better equipped to reform the system.

    Even so, Potter — who left his position as head of corporate communications of health insurance giant CIGNA to serve as senior fellow for health care at the Center for Media and Democracy — wishes Americans would harbor the same mistrust of big business that they have for big government.

    “Our health care system has been taken over by well-paid and influential analysts on Wall Street,” Potter told me last week. “There’s a long-held belief that the free market can work wonders in all sectors. We’ve discovered that is not true of health care.”

    Potter, who grew up in Kingsport, came to this realization a few years ago while in the Upstate to visit his parents. He took a trip to nearby Wise County, Va., to get a look at a weekend Remote Area Medical clinic that provides free health care services to rural and under-served communities. He was disappointed to find that many at the clinic were under-insured patients forced to seek charity care.

    Potter grew even more disenchanted with the health insurance industry after learning of a 17-year-old girl who died after being denied coverage for an experimental transplant operation. That’s when he decided to become an advocate for reform.

    “My last job provided me with a unique perspective of how the insurance industry makes its money through links to Wall Street and investors,” Potter said. “The industry has to be very aggressive to be profitable.”

    That has meant insurance companies moving more Americans into “consumer directed” health plans that require enrollees to pay for more services out of their own pockets. These tactics, he said, have resulted in many more Americans becoming under-insured or losing their coverage. “Americans need true competition in health care,” Potter said.

    Since 1994, which was the last time a major health care overhaul was debated in D.C., Potter said the nation has seen a “rapid consolidation” of insurance companies. Today, seven big companies control the insurance industry. “It’s a tragedy the way special interest has taken advantage of our democracy,” he said.

    Potter is optimistic that health care reform will be enacted by Congress, but he doubts a bill can be passed before the end of the year. He also believes a “bipartisan solution is not attainable.”

    As an employee of CIGNA, Potter said he saw a “vast amount of money” from the industry’s political action committees go to the campaign coffers of GOP members of Congress. That money, he said, was to make sure the status quo is maintained for the health insurance industry.

    Industry money is being pumped into an aggressive propaganda campaign to convince Americans that the current health care system is not broken. Try telling that to the 700,000 under-insured who have filed personal bankruptcy this year as a result of massive medical bills.

    Robert Houk is Opinion

    page editor for the Johnson City

    Press. He can be reached at