As It Happens

This former U.S. health insurance exec says he lied to Americans about Canadian health care

Wendell Potter says the stark differences in how Canada and the U.S. are weathering the COVID-19 pandemic compelled him to speak out again about the lies he says he peddled to Americans when he worked as a private insurance executive.

'I feel terrible about my role in that,' says Wendell Potter who now leads Medicare for All Now

Wendell Potter is the president Medicare For All Now, and a former U.S. health insurance executive. (Submitted by Wendell Potter)
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Wendell Potter says the stark differences in how Canada and the U.S. are weathering the COVID-19 pandemic compelled him to speak out once more about the lies he says he peddled to Americans when he worked as a private insurance executive.

Potter used to be the communications vice-president of Cigna, a U.S. insurance company. Now he leads an organization called Medicare for All Now.

Potter wrote on Twitter that Cigna spent "big $$" trying to sell Americans on the "lie" that the Canadian public health-care system is "awful" and the U.S. system is "much better." But the pandemic, he says, proves otherwise. As It Happens has reached out to Cigna for comment. 

Canada had more than 103,900 COVID-19 cases and 8,569 deaths as of Monday, according to data tracked by CBC News.

The United States on Monday reported more than 2.5 million cases, or about a quarter of the more than 10 million cases worldwide, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. More than 125,700 people have died there. 

Here is part of Potter's conversation with As It Happens guest host Duncan McCue. 

What were the lies you told Americans about Canada's public health-care system?

We told the Americans that the Canadian system was not the system that we should have anything to do with, that it was "socialized medicine." We used that term repeatedly to try to get people to be afraid of the Canadian system.

We exaggerated and misinformed people about waits. I'm very familiar with the waits that you have to, in many cases, have in Canada for elective procedures. But we wanted people to have the impression that if you have an emergency or if you have any need for medical care, that you were put on a long waiting list.

And it's to try to make people think that Canadians don't like their health-care system and that doctors don't like it and that people are coming across the border in droves to get care in the U.S. So we tried to create that perception and to make people think that's really the way the Canadian system is.

You said this: "We spent big $$ to push the idea that Canada's single-payer system was awful & the U.S. system much better. It was a lie & the nations' COVID responses prove it." What's your evidence for that?

Your testing has been more consistent than ours, more robust than ours. You've had fewer cases and fewer deaths on a per-population basis than we have.

The experience in this country has been among the worst in the developed world when it comes to both testing, treatment and deaths, unfortunately.

This weekend, the world passed 10 million recorded cases of COVID-19, but while many hard-hit countries are showing clear progress in getting the virus under control, the U.S. is seeing massive spikes in new infections. 3:20

A lot of people have responded to your tweet and some people are thanking you for speaking out. There are others who are taking you to task, sir, about your role in creating the current American system and hurting the Canadian system. How do you feel now about what you told people about the Canadian health-care system?

I feel terrible about my role in that, and that I think a lot of the people were just hearing me for the first time.

I began to make amends about 12 years. I left my job in 2008. I testified before Congress numerous times in 2009 and 2010 when Congress was debating the bill that became the Affordable Care Act. I've written books. I've written many articles.

But this tweet, for some reason, or this Twitter thread, really took off in ways that I just could not have anticipated. So there were a lot of people who were just finding out about me, thinking that I had just now begun speaking out. But I've been working to make amends. I've even done a speaking tour of Canada in recent years just to help people understand the difference between the two systems. And I've often called it an apology tour of Canada.

I do apologize. But I will say this. Had I not been in that role, I would not know what I do know, and not be able to pull the curtain back on how the health-care system in this country really operates. People were surprised to hear and read what I had written in many cases. So I feel that it's very important for me to just continue to do that, to pull these curtains back and to provide information that people will just never, ever hear.

Medical workers prepare to intubate a COVID-19 patient at the United Memorial Medical Center's coronavirus disease intensive care unit in Houston, Texas. (Callaghan O'Hare/Reuters)

You left the health insurance industry in 2008, as you just mentioned. What happened to make you realize that you were, as you say, telling lies for the American health-care system?

There were a series of things that just occurred in the months preceding my departure that opened my eyes to what I was doing for a living and just what my company and the insurance industry were doing.

I'd been able to to lead a pretty isolated life with my executive position outside of Philadelphia. And I grew up in Tennessee, though, a very poor part of the country.

This pandemic has really opened the eyes of a lot more people to just how our health-care system puts so many people at a disadvantage. More than 40 million people have lost their jobs in this country and many, many of those have also lost their health insurance for themselves and their families.- Wendell Potter, Medicare For All Now 

I flew back to visit family during the summer of 2007, actually, and went to something that I read about in a hometown newspaper called a "health-care expedition" held at the county fairground near where I grew up. I went there out of curiosity, and I saw people who were there by the thousands lined up to get care that, in many cases, was being provided in barns and animal stalls on a county fairground near Kingsport, Tenn.

I was just stunned. I couldn't believe that I was seeing this in the United States. And I knew that I had to accept some responsibility for that because I did work to try to protect profits, to perpetuate the U.S. health-care system. And I realized that had I not been fortunate along the way, I could have been one of those people.

You're really extolling the Canadian response to the pandemic. But our response in this country hasn't been perfect. And our infection rates have been higher than in some countries. The number of deaths in long-term care homes has been devastating. I mean, much higher than in other places, including the United States. So what do you think Canadians who've lost loved ones living in long-term care homes should take from your message?

I didn't ever suggest that the Canadian system is perfect or that the response to the pandemic there has been perfect. It has been better than it has been in some places, and certainly better than ours.

But because the opponents of reform in this country so often look to Canada and try to mischaracterize it, that was the reason I mentioned Canada in particular.

But I've also written a great deal about the response of other countries. And you can look at charts, you can see that other systems, the single-payer system or universal health-care at least in the developed world, have done a far better job than we have.

It's a sad thing when anyone loses anyone in their family or a loved one of any nature. The Canadians have a great deal to do and to learn from this, as well as we do. But the experience, the ability that you've had because of the structure of your health-care system, enabled you to be a bit better prepared than we were in this country.

There will be many Canadians who will take some comfort, be receptive to your message. How likely is it that Americans are going to listen to what you have to say?

I think they are beginning to. This pandemic has really opened the eyes of a lot more people to just how our health-care system puts so many people at a disadvantage.

More than 40 million people have lost their jobs in this country and many, many of those have also lost their health insurance for themselves and their families.

People are beginning to wake up that our system is fundamentally structured in a way that causes so much harm to so many people and is very insecure. So I think that this is something that we're enduring that will have lasting effect and prompt Americans to be more supportive of sweeping health-care reforms.


Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from CBC News. Interview produced by Kate Swoger. Edited for length and clarity. 

 

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