Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life

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Wendell Potter

Wendell Potter is a health insurance industry whistleblower and author of 'Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR Is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans'

July 6th, 2011 7:37 AM

It's Time to Get Outraged

One of my favorite bumper stickers reads, "If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention."

That's sort of how I feel about the health care debate. If more Americans paid attention to the fate of neighbors and loved ones who have fallen victim to the cruel dysfunction of our health care system, they would see through the onslaught of lies and propaganda perpetrated by special interests profiting from the status quo.  

Since I started speaking out against the abuses of the insurance industry, I have heard from hundreds of people with maddening and heartbreaking stories about being mistreated and victimized by the greed that characterizes so much of the profit-driven American health care system.

Many other people send me links to articles or broadcasts they have seen. When I worked in the insurance industry, we called them "horror stories," and for good reason. The circumstances people often found themselves in were nightmarishly horrible. As an industry PR guy, my mission was to keep as many of those horror stories out of the media as possible. We didn't want the public to know.

It occurred to me recently that Americans are not sufficiently outraged because they either don't hear these stories or, if they do, don't believe how commonplace they are or that anyone they know could experience the same misfortune. Or they might hear that more than 50 million Americans don't have insurance because they can't afford it or, in many cases, can't buy it even if they can afford it, but they don't stop to think that real human beings make up that abstract 50 million figure.

The reality is that these stories are indeed commonplace. Almost all of us -- regardless of our age, income, job or political affiliation -- are just a layoff or plant closure away from being uninsured, or a business decision beyond our control from being underinsured, or an illness away from being forced into bankruptcy and homelessness.

My life changed when I really started paying attention a few years ago. I now have a new mission -- to help people become aware of and understand what is going on around them. So, starting today, I will be sharing on an occasional basis some of the horror stories like the ones I used to work so hard to keep out of the press. My hope is that people will begin to remember why reform is so necessary and why repealing "ObamaCare," despite its shortcomings, is not a real option.

You might have heard about this first one. Even if you have it bears retelling. A few weeks ago, a man in North Carolina was arrested for robbing a bank for $1 so he could get government-provided health care in prison.

Fifty-nine-year-old Richard James Verone has a tumor in his chest and two ruptured disks, but no job or health insurance. He is one of those 50 million Americans I mentioned earlier. Verone told reporters he asked for only a dollar to show that his motives were medical, not monetary. Because of his "preexisting" medical conditions, no private insurer will have anything to do with him. He wasn't destitute enough to qualify for Medicaid, the government program for low-income Americans, or old enough to qualify for Medicare, the government program for people 65 and older.

Verone and millions of other Americans who have a history of illness are considered by private insurers to be "uninsurable." Insurance company underwriters consider them an excessive risk to profits. Even insurers that operate as nonprofits, like many Blue Cross plans, refuse to sell coverage to a third or more of Americans who apply because they've been sick in the past. Many of the people they turn down are children who were born with birth defects.

Shortly after Verone staged his robbery, one of the contestants in the Miss USA pageant revealed during a nationally broadcast interview that she is homeless. Why? Her sick mother could not pay both the rent and her mounting medical bills. Twenty-three-year-old Blair Griffith was evicted along with her mother and brother just weeks after she won the title of Miss Colorado.

"I didn't know what to think" when sheriff's deputies starting putting the family's belongings in garbage bags, she said. "It was shocking. And then I saw my mom on her knees crying and begging them, 'Please don't do this to me' and then looking up at me and saying, 'I'm so sorry.'"

Blair's mother, a widow, lost her health insurance soon after suffering a severe heart attack.  She was unable to get another policy. She and her children eventually had no choice but to join an untold number of other Americans who are homeless because they can't pay their medical bills. Many are bankrupt as well as homeless. Medical debt is the leading cause of bankruptcy in the United States.

The third story I want to share with you hasn't made headlines. Most such stories never do. A few days ago a young woman who said she'd been raped sent me an e-mail to ask if I might be able to help her find insurance.

"I am in the process of hiring a broker to help me find insurance, but it is just very overwhelming and sad," she wrote. "I have been denied by three major companies or had riders attached that will not cover anything related to HPV, cervical cancer, medications, or treatments. Basically, they will do nothing for me."

She wrote, essentially, to beg for help.

"I have never talked about what happened (to me), but I am learning that this is too big to handle on my own. There are so many barriers, and while I consider myself an intelligent person, I am by no means an expert when it comes to dealing with insurance agencies. I will take and am grateful for all the help that I can get."

I hope I can help her, but there is no assurance that either I or a broker or anyone else for that matter can help her get the coverage and access to care she needs. She is an apparent victim not just of rape but also of an unjust system that has devolved into seemingly intractable dysfunction while we were not paying close enough attention.

These are just three people whose lives have taken a tragic turn because of America's profit-driven private health care system.  There are literally millions of other stories, many of which are even more maddening and heartbreaking.

When the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare) is fully implemented in 2014, the number of uninsured Americans will be reduced by 30 million, and many of the insurance industry's most egregious practices -- including refusing to sell coverage to people with preexisting conditions -- will be outlawed.

Let's hope that there will be far fewer horror stories after 2014. But the new law is just the beginning. We still will have a long way to go before we have universal coverage, like every other developed country in the world.

Universal coverage, in my view, is the ultimate goal we all should share. Remember this if nothing else: Until we achieve it, you and your loved ones could easily be facing your own horror stories.

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