Beware of corporate influence in health reform

By Sue Deppe
Burlington (Vt.) Free Press, April 5, 2011

Vermont’s health reform bill, H.202, outlines a path toward a streamlined, publicly financed, single-payer health care system. There are huge profits at stake for insurance, managed care, and drug firms and their business allies.

So far, these groups are keeping a fairly low profile. But according to whistle-blower Wendell Potter, former head of corporate communications at CIGNA, you can bet that they’re working feverishly behind the scenes to derail reform.

In his book, “Deadly Spin,” from 1993 to 2008, he was a leader in industry efforts to kill every health reform bill threatening insurance company profits. He and his colleagues spent millions of patients’ and employers’ premium dollars to convince a good portion of the public that the United States has the “best health care system in the world,” despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

He continues, “And if you were persuaded that the health care reform bill President Barack Obama signed into law in March 2010 was ‘a government takeover of the health care system,’ my former colleagues and I earned every penny of our handsome salaries. Not to mention our bonuses.”

Phrases such as “government takeover” are carefully crafted and evaluated, at a cost of millions, to manipulate us. They are then echoed repeatedly by allies, including some in the news media, until people believe that they’re true.

Potter opens the health insurance lobby’s “playbook.” Watch for these tactics:

The fear mongering has begun! People predict “rationing” (which is already widespread due to denials and lack of coverage). Some say Vermont is moving too fast. While anxiety is understandable, we do have the careful study done by William Hsiao’s expert team.

Others distract people from the real problems -- soaring costs, waste, inefficiency, widespread suffering and deaths -- by promoting the market-based system which caused them.

Opponents say single-payer will kill jobs. Hsiao’s team reported it will fuel economic growth. (Toyota built its recent North American plant in Toronto so it wouldn’t have to provide health care.)

“Spin” may be an outright lie or encourage people to doubt scientific data. Some insist that Americans don’t want reform despite good evidence that the majority of citizens -- and physicians -- want a single-payer system.

Another lie is “The current system works for most people.” Thousands of Vermonters are suffering! The administrative and managed care burdens drive many doctors out of practice and reduce access.

Corporations use philanthropy and warm, fuzzy advertising to distract us from negative publicity. Or they may say one thing and do another. The insurance lobby claimed to support federal reform, while working in secret to defeat it.

Insurance allies rely on alleged “experts” and fake grassroots “Astroturf” front groups. Their trade group, AHIP, funneled millions to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 2009 to run ads opposing health reform.

How can we protect ourselves from propaganda and spin?

Be skeptical! If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is (Remember Big Tobacco’s youth smoking prevention campaigns?). Visit Scroll down for Potter’s article on Vermont.

Beware of scare tactics and labels! Phrases like “socialized medicine” are used to manipulate you (In many single-payer systems, doctors can practice privately and patients can choose whom to see).

Watch for front groups. They often have feel-good names that stress freedom or “American values.” Check:

Be skeptical of sources of data. Beware of people who are unwilling to have a nuanced discussion of all sides of an issue.

Finally, educate yourself about single-payer. Tweaking the edges of our health care system has not helped. The system itself is the problem.

Potter reminds us, “Always look behind any public argument to see how your emotions are being manipulated. And count on it: They are.” Vermonters are generally an independent lot. I’m willing to bet that we’re smart enough to do what’s right, not what’s best for corporate America.

Dr. Susan Leigh Deppe practices psychiatry in Colchester.