Christine Stuart photo
Wendell Potter (Christine Stuart photo)

The former head of corporate communications for CIGNA returned to the insurance capital Monday to add his voice to the national health care debate.

Wendell Potter, who left CIGNA in 2008, admitted he worked to kill health care reform efforts during the Clinton administration, but “didn’t want to be part of another effort to kill reform this time.”

“It was a crisis of conscience that finally lead me to leave my job,” Potter said at a Capitol press conference.

As he climbed the corporate ladder, first at Humana Inc. then at CIGNA, Potter said what he saw of the industry increasingly disturbed him.

In particular the rescission policy—where a health insurance company cancels an individual’s coverage when they get sick—was troubling to Potter.

Potter said a Congressional investigation done earlier this year found that just three insurance companies, during a short period of time, rescinded 20,000 policies and saved themselves $300 million.

He said there’s also a push within the industry to shift more of the burden onto consumers through “consumer driven plans” like health savings accounts with high deductibles.

The company was always saying “What we really need is American to have more skin in the game,” Potter said. 

That’s easy for someone making $30 million a year to say, but it’s a lot more difficult if you make $50,000 a year, Potter said. He said even CIGNA stopped offering its own employees HMOs and PPOs and put them on “consumer driven plans” with high deductibles.

“The shift of the burden of medical costs and the limited benefit plans that they’re trying to move us all into, or more of us into, is the reason why now 25 million of us are in the ranks of the underinsured,” Potter said. “That will continue if we don’t get reform.”

Potter’s decision to leave the health insurance industry came in 2007 after he visited a free clinic hosted by Remote Area Medical.

“I don’t know what drew me there, but it was meant to be,” Potter said. “When I walked through the gates of the Wise County Fairgrounds where this event was being held it was as if being hit by lightening.”

Hundreds of people were standing in the rain for hours waiting to get care in animal stalls that had been cleaned out the day before, Potter said. A lot of the individuals Potter talked to that fateful day had health insurance, but the deductibles were so high they had no other choice but to seek charity care.

But it’s not only the underinsured and uninsured who have embraced charity care. Potter said the insurance companies themselves are advising their customers to call organizations like Remote Area Medical to receive care.

“You really cannot trust the health insurance companies to do the right thing,” Potter said. “I regret that I have to say that, but it’s the truth.”

As far as the politics of health care reform are concerned, Potter said he’s more optimistic than he has been in the past about real reform.

As for U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who has said he would support a Republican filibuster if the Senate bill includes a public option, “I feel kinda sorry for the guy,” Potter said. Lieberman comes across as someone who has truly lost touch with his constituency, Potter said.

He said he has a name for those types of lawmakers: “shills.” He said he believes Lieberman is carrying water for the insurance industry.

However, Lieberman disputed that in an interview this Sunday on Face the Nation.

“I wish people would come out and debate me on a public option instead of questioning my motives,” Lieberman said. “I have never hesitated to get tough on insurance companies when I thought they were wrong.”

Since he’s been speaking about insurance industry practices Potter said he hasn’t been attacked by the industry. He said there are a few blogger critics, but other than that “they really haven’t figured me out just yet.”

“They have not attacked me directly,” possibly because “they know what I’m saying is true,” Potter said.