Shortly after Nataline Sarkisyan died at age 17 in 2007, Wendell Potter quit his job at Cigna. The health insurance giant had initially denied Sarkisyan a liver transplant. Days later, the potentially life-saving procedure was approved, but Sarkisyan died within hours of the approval. At the time, Potter was Cigna’s vice president of corporation communications, and his job was to defend the company’s actions to the media. He simply couldn’t do it anymore. “I guess you’d say the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Potter said. “After being a part of handling the PR from that particular case, I just couldn’t keep doing my job as I had. I couldn’t do it in good conscience.”
After leaving Cigna, Potter testified before multiple Congressional committees to explain how insurance companies operate and how their lobbying efforts work. After 25 years working in the private insurance industry, Potter not only refers to himself as a “reformed insurance propagandist” but is now an advocate for Medicare for All.
VICE spoke to Potter about how the coronavirus pandemic—and the resulting recession—highlights the problems with for-profit, employer-sponsored health insurance. “Before this pandemic started, we had almost 30 million people who are uninsured,” he said. “That’s going to increase dramatically over the coming weeks.”
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Do you remember when you decided to support Medicare for All, and what led to that change of heart?
It was kind of gradual. For a number of years after I left Cigna, I didn’t because I just thought it was too much of the heavy lift for members of Congress to support.
I began to see things change about three years ago, and began to notice, too, that more and more Democrats, and a Democratic caucus of the House, began signing on to Medicare for All legislation. But what I also began to understand around the same time was that employers, businesses around the country, are really struggling to continue offering benefits to their workers. Our employer-based system of health insurance is crumbling, it has been now for a couple of decades. It’s been gradual, and not many people have been paying attention to it.ADVERTISEMENT
For example, when Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg were still running for president, they and Joe Biden were talking on the debate stage about the 150 million people who have coverage through the workplace, that they want to keep those private plans. But what they didn’t tell you is that 20 years ago, 160 million people got their coverage through their employers, and during that time, the population increased by 50 million. More and more employers are throwing in the towel—they just can’t continue to offer benefits to their workers.
When I realized that, and after talking personally to a number of employers, I thought, well, we really have a big problem that only real transformation can fix. And that’s when I became a very vocal advocate for Medicare for All, just within the last three years.