EDITOR’S NOTE: In 2009, he came to us at Bill Moyers Journal because he wanted to tell the truth and needed someone to hear him. As Wendell Potter told his story, we listened — and what we heard was sickening: a story of corruption in the health insurance industry that not only raised the cost of coverage to consumers but put lives at risk.
Potter had seen it up close, as head of corporate public relations pulling down a six-figure salary for one of the country’s biggest insurers. He had watched in disbelief as he saw how Wall Street’s hunger to force up quarterly profits gave insurers every incentive to deny coverage, as every dollar not paid out to a claim added to profits and to the soaring paychecks and bonuses of CEOs. Under these conditions, Potter told us, you don’t think about individuals, “you think about the numbers, and whether or not you’re going to meet Wall Street’s expectations.”
One day, back home in Tennessee, where he had begun his career as a journalist, Potter happened upon a makeshift health clinic set up at a rural fairgrounds for people who couldn’t afford to visit a doctor, fill a prescription or go to a hospital. He told us, “When I walked through the fairground gates, I saw hundreds of people lined up, in the rain, waiting to get care in animal stalls. Animal stalls!”
Potter blew the whistle, becoming management’s “worst nightmare,” revealing how public opinion was manipulated with deceitful corporate propaganda. His testimony before Congress rocked the industry. His revelations during our hour-long interview — his first on television — reverberated far and wide. He expected to be vilified and was. The first requirement for a whistleblower is credibility; the second is courage; the third, a thick hide. Potter never flinched. The journalist-turned-executive-turned-whistleblower has became a reformer, working with reporters and activists to track the abuses of an industry with extraordinary power over our lives, our economy and our politics.
Now Wendell Potter returns to journalism. Today, he launches a new organization for investigative reporting called Tarbell — a watchdog we’ll wager can bite as well as bark. He’s named it for — well, that’s what you will find out from this conversation between Potter and our senior writer, Michael Winship.
— Bill Moyers
Michael Winship: Wendell, welcome. To begin, why have you decided to call your website Tarbell?
Wendell Potter: I think a lot of people don’t recognize the name, but Ida Tarbell was one of America’s most important journalists. She was a journalist in the early part of the 20thcentury, the early 1900s, and her muckraking really led to some very important legislation, antitrust and campaign finance laws during the Teddy Roosevelt administration, largely as a report of her dogged reporting and investigating of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company, which was a huge monopoly and conglomerate. Over a series of six reports that were published in McClure’s Magazine, she really exposed what the consequences of that monopoly were on American society.
So she is our guiding spirit. We hope to shine a light on corporations and other special interests that have really rigged the system against regular folks.
MW: Why did you decide to start a website?
WP: You know, it was largely because of what I learned when I was in corporate America. I headed corporate communications for two big health insurance companies at different times, Humana and Cigna, and toward the end of my career, I saw that there were fewer and fewer reporters who were interested or able to really take a close look at how corporations do business and what the consequences of their practices are. And that’s why I testified before Congress after I left my old job and tried to pull the curtain back so people could understand more how corporations and special interests manipulate public opinion.
I wrote a book called Deadly Spin after that. More recently, I also wrote, with Nick Penniman, a book called Nation on the Take: How Big Money Corrupted Democracy and What We Can Do About It, and that focused on how those special interests, those moneyed interests, spend money to manipulate public policy, influence elections and what the consequences are to the rest of us.
Not enough people read books or hear congressional testimony, so I decided to go the extra step and try to reach a much broader audience. I think few people are really aware of just how much our system of government has shifted from the democratic republic envisioned by our founders to one that is largely an oligarchy and I want to expose that.
Our journalists will take that on and over a period of time make the case that we need to really get involved to change the system and how it can be changed. So we’re also going to be focusing on solutions, not just investigating the problem, but what can we do about it? How can we, for example, improve the health care system in ways that we haven’t seen our policymakers attempt yet? And what can we do to enact meaningful reforms that clean up the corruption that is so prevalent in governments at all levels?
MW: You’ve said that Tarbell’s mission is to report stories essential to our democracy and our lives. Besides health care, what would be some examples of that?
WP: The financial services industry, the chemical industry, the fossil fuel industry. We have a situation obviously in which the planet is warming and we’ve got to take action but there are big fossil fuel companies that are able to call the shots in Washington and state capitals around the country that prevent the action we need to make sure that we’re not continuing on this path toward an uninhabitable planet.
Another is why is higher education so expensive? Why are our young people now saddled with so much student debt that many of them will probably never pay it off? Why are so few chemicals that are in everyday products not regulated and not even tested?
MW: Is the overarching story then money in politics?
WP: Money in politics is a very, very big part of it because money has become so much a part of our political system that members of Congress don’t spend nearly as much time in their offices on the people’s business, they have to constantly be raising money for re-election. They spend on average half of their day dialing for dollars. They leave their offices and go to Democratic and Republican offices to be telemarketers trying to raise money for re-election. And then in the evenings they go to fundraisers that are hosted by lobbyists.
So we’ve got a situation that really has facilitated this shift from a democratic republic to an oligarchy. The rich and powerful really call the shots and we want to address that. It is pervasive. In addition, we want to show just how some business practices, even if they’re not influencing public policy, affect our lives in ways that we need to know about.
There are a lot of different areas that we want to take on but we also want to have our readers help us determine some of the topics that we cover. This is going to be participatory journalism in a very real sense. We want to get story ideas from our readers, we want to have them suggest not just topics but to engage in online conversations with our journalists as they’re working on stories.
MW: So you think that that kind of interactivity is what will set Tarbell apart from some of the other investigative journalism sites?
WP: It’s essential for citizens to be involved and I see no reason why they shouldn’t be involved in journalism. And I think we would even publish some pieces that are submitted by readers. We want to build a community of readers. We’re nonprofit, so we’re going to be relying on donations but we will not have a paywall. We want everyone to be able to see the work that we produce.
We also want to help people understand how they can actually become part of the solution, what some of the tools and information are that they need to be more involved. The solutions journalism part of what we’re doing will help them understand what some of the options are to improve our government and society and will give them information on how they can affiliate with groups that are engaged in an issue.
MW: There’s been such a drumbeat from Donald Trump and the White House about fake news. How do you see Tarbell combatting that accusation?
WP: Donald Trump has kind of defined fake news in his own terms. Originally, it was a term that was applied to information that was not true, that was being disseminated by people who were trying to influence the elections by spreading false information. He usurped the term and uses it to try to delegitimize the media, which I think is something he’s doing quite effectively with some segments of the population.
But that said, to a certain extent I think that Americans have lost trust in the fourth estate. One reason is that there are far fewer reporters doing the investigative work that we hope to do. And so much of what you see in the media these days — the talking head, political TV shows; people shouting at each other or the he said/she said kind of stuff — that is about all we get. We want to go more in depth. We want to help people understand an issue more deeply — not just what politicians are saying about an issue, [but] how they’re affected and what they can do about it. So one of our objectives is to try to bring back public confidence in the media.
MW: How hard is it to begin a startup these days? What surprised you along the way that you didn’t expect?
WP: It surprised me that it takes longer than I would like it to have and it takes money. We would like to have been publishing six months ago but it takes a while to do all that needs to be done from being designated a nonprofit organization, which we have, we got our determination letter from the IRS that we are a 501(c)(3).
The name of the nonprofit that will publish Tarbell is “To Be Fair,” and that name has some significance. We wanted to signify that whatever we do will be fair, fair reporting, but also aim to help achieve a more just and fair society through journalism. I think that journalism has shown itself over decades and centuries to be essential to democracy and to help drive important change. We want to be a part of that, to make sure that the watchdog role of the press continues.
We’re tenacious and determined and so grateful that we are at this point and can soon start publishing the journalism that we’ve been telling people we plan to do.
MW: How have you staffed this?
WP: I’ve got a small team of people who are helping us to build this, journalists and tech experts. We’ve got a terrific board of directors and board of advisers.
We’ve had so many emails and calls from reporters around the country who are interested and would like to work for us. Ultimately, what we want to do is to build a paid staff of 10 to 12 people. We also will work with freelance reporters around the country. Hopefully, we will have an ample freelance budget.
We really want to have news and information from all across the country. We will not be based in Washington or New York. We want to be away from those media centers for various reasons. We’re going to be based in Philadelphia, where our country began. Our core staff will be based there but even some of the paid staff will be working virtually from wherever they might be.
MW: We mentioned that the scope of your interests is vast but your focus for a long time was the health care insurance industry, as an executive within it and then as an advocate for reform, and we know that health care constitutes a sixth of the American economy. How much of Tarbell’s focus will be on it?
WP: A significant amount of our emphasis will be on health care, certainly to start. It’s one of the most topical issues clearly and our health care system once again is under threat. What the president is doing now despite what he says is really undermining the Affordable Care Act, trying to make it collapse if he possibly can. And whether or not he goes forward or is able to achieve what he’s trying to achieve, we need to do much more than what we have done even with the Affordable Care Act.
I said during that debate that the Affordable Care Act did good things but it was just the end of the beginning of reform. There are a lot of things that we need to do to improve our health care system. The Affordable Care Act brought a lot of people into coverage but there are still 30 million of us who don’t have it and health care costs continue to go up.
As part of solutions journalism, we want to help people understand what Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All legislation is all about and other proposals as well. And we want to help people to get the truth about how other systems around the world operate, on how the Canadian health care system operates and is different from ours and how other systems around the world have been able to achieve universal coverage and much better cost control than we have and while doing all that have much better outcomes.
It can be done. We won’t be advocating for the adoption of any particular system but we want people to really understand what the possibilities are. One of my jobs in my old career was to scare people away from any kind of system that wasn’t like the one we have now because it benefits the insurance industry and the other influential special interests — they make a lot of money off of this system. And to a certain extent, I’m making amends for the deception, the misleading information that I was part of disseminating for many years in my old job.
MW: You mentioned the president and health care, what are your thoughts on these most recent developments, the executive actions to undercut the ACA and his declaration on Monday that Obamacare is dead? And what do you make of the attempt by Sens. Patty Murray and Lamar Alexander to come up with a temporary bipartisan compromise?
WP: If his executive orders do go forward, there’s no doubt that what we had referred to or known as Obamacare is no more. In fact, I think it probably is time to start calling what we have Trumpcare.
The executive orders would really be such a disadvantage to people who really need insurance. A lot of people will be once again priced out of the market and won’t be able to afford coverage. One of the executive orders creates what’s referred to as association health plans that will enable small employers in particular to circumvent state law and even federal law so that they can sell skimpy insurance, junk insurance if you will, to people, which will undoubtedly attract a lot of young and healthy people because the premiums will be cheaper but the value of what they’re buying is so much less, to the point that many of those policies will indeed be junk insurance. So it’s tragic what would happen if that executive order goes forward.
Now he’s directed the Department of Health and Human Services and other departments to write the regulations for the implementation of this order. That will take time and there has to be a period of public comment. So it’s not going to happen tomorrow. It may be months down the road but it could happen. And it will be devastating. And even during that time it creates more uncertainty in the health insurance marketplace. And that undoubtedly will also lead to more health insurers leaving the Obamacare exchanges or if they stay increasing their premiums because of the uncertainty of knowing whether or not there will be any money to help cover the out of pocket expenses for example of the people enrolled in those plans.
Another part of the executive order is to cut off the payments that have gone to or through insurance companies to help people afford to get the care that they need, to help offset their out of pocket expenses, which is so important for a lot of low and middle income people. So it could be really quite devastating.
That’s why I’m delighted Sens. Alexander and Murray were able to land on a bipartisan short-term proposal to preserve the subsidies many low- and middle-income Americans are getting to help them cover those out of pocket medical expenses. Without the subsidies, a lot of folks wouldn’t be able to pay for the care they need. What’s not good is letting states permit the sale of policies that are nowhere close to adequate. Many people who enroll in those so-called catastrophic plans find out when it’s too late that they have to pay far more than they’re able to pay for expensive medical care. It would lead to more people filing for bankruptcy because of medical debt.
Senate Democrats seem to be on board with what Alexander and Murray have come up with, but 60 votes will be needed for it to pass the Senate. And in the House, the odds are even slimmer. Paul Ryan has already said he’s against anything that doesn’t repeal and replace Obamacare. And it’s anybody’s guess where the president will land. One minute he likes it, the next minute he hates it. I wouldn’t give it much chance of going anywhere.
MW: Also, with the new ACA enrollment period about to start, all these efforts to cut back on promoting new enrollments and then just the very fact of his declaring Obamacare dead would seem to be either a conscious or unconscious way to quash enrollments.
WP: There’s no doubt that’s true. For a lot of people, in many cases, perception is reality. It’s the news that they get. And without advertising and other means of spreading the word about open enrollment, then we probably will see a lot of people not enrolling for coverage beginning next month for 2018. More than likely we will see a drop-off in people who sign up and premiums will be higher for a lot of people.
Once again, because of the uncertainty, the insurance companies that are still in the Obamacare exchanges didn’t know what the president or Congress might do. Some of them suspected that some of the payments that have been going through them to help low and middle income people might be cut off and so consequently they’ve raised premiums in many places. So people will find it in some cases more expensive to get coverage than it has been in the past.
MW: They’re projecting 20–25 percent increases in premiums over the next couple of years.
WP: That’s correct in many places, not in every place but that absolutely could happen and be more the average. It even could be higher than that. And it’s not just premiums that we’re talking about. It’s important to pay attention to where the premiums are, but it’s just as important and sometimes more important to know what your out of pocket obligations are.
One of the things that led me to leave my job was the industry strategy of moving more and more of us, all of us eventually, into high deductible plans. And I knew that those plans were not good for a lot of people who have a lot of medical expenses because of health status or pre-existing conditions and income. So that strategy has continued and what the president’s executive orders would do is make it even more challenging for people who really need insurance and need care.
MW: Wendell, as someone who’s been both a journalist and a corporate executive, what do you think you’re going to bring to this Tarbell endeavor that will make it different?
WP: First of all, I’m so grateful to be able to return to journalism. I realized during my corporate career — and it was a long corporate career — that I am really a journalist at heart. I sometimes joke that I spent 20 years inside the health insurance industry undercover. So what I can do is offer and provide some insights and help journalists understand where to go look for a story and how to get information and how to cover big business in a way that is not being done much anymore.
I’ve seen it from the inside, I know the tricks. I know how they go about doing what they do to manipulate public opinion and elections and public policy. And what I bring to this is an emphasis on bringing the watchdog press back with scrutiny on business and business practices and the way that big businesses and other moneyed interests like trade associations. We want to help people understand how they do what they do and how we are often so disadvantaged. They do what they do to enhance profits, to enhance shareholder value, to protect a profitable status quo. And we at Tarbell will explain how it is they go about doing this and why it’s important. We’ll be connecting the dots for people so that they can understand why they should care to the point of getting involved to help move us to solutions.
MW: Wendell, thank you and best of luck with Tarbell.