In Coronavirus Crisis, Health Insurers Resort to Corporate Greed

Interview with Wendell Potter, a former health insurance industry executive, turned whistleblower and author, conducted by Scott Harris

President Donald Trump has repeatedly lied, spread misinformation and attempted to score political points during one of the world’s most dangerous health crises. Millions of people in the U.S. and around the world are highly dependent on the actions their governments take to slow the spread of the coronavirus and equip hospitals with ventilators and protective gear to properly treat the flood of patients whose very lives hang in the balance.

On March 24, Trump issued perhaps his most dangerous pronouncement on the COVID-19 pandemic when he said in an interview that he hoped the government could relax social distancing guidelines and the nation could go back to work by Easter on April 12. Health experts warn that unless Americans continue to strictly observe limits on social interactions, the number of infections will overwhelm the health care system leading to many more unnecessary deaths.

Earlier, in a primetime televised address to the nation, the president claimed that private health-insurance companies had “agreed to waive all co-payments for coronavirus treatments, extend insurance coverage to these treatments, and to prevent surprise medical billing.”

However, insurers quickly corrected Trump, asserting that they only agreed to waive copays for coronavirus testing. The massively expensive follow-up treatments will not be exempt from deductibles, or out-of-pocket costs. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Wendell Potter, a former health insurance industry executive turned whistleblower, who takes a critical look at how the U.S. insurance industry has responded to the coronavirus pandemic.

WENDELL POTTER: Several days ago, you may recall, President Trump said at one of his press briefings that after talking with insurance company executives, the industry had agreed to cover both testing and treatment of Covid 19. The industry was very quick to set the record straight right after that, saying that they had made no commitment to cover out-of-pocket costs for treatment. In fact, that was what the president was saying – he was referring to out-of-pocket cost. And as you know, the industry over the last several years has moved most of us into high deductible plans, those of us who have coverage through our employers or through a private insurance company. And as a consequence, most Americans are now on the hook to pay for hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars out of their own pockets before their coverage will kick in. And there’s no doubt that many thousands, if not millions of Americans are going to be needing treatment related to this pandemic and the industry so far has been unyielding and has not said it would what the president said they told him they would do – which is to waive those out-of-pocket expenses. So this means that a lot of people who are sick and will be needing care and needing not only to be tested but to be treated, in many cases, needing very expensive treatment will find that they have to pay many thousands of dollars in many cases.

SCOTT HARRIS: Wendell, what can Congress do at this point to ensure that people have coverage that won’t go bankrupt because they’re being treated – in some cases in the ICU for coronavirus and the respiratory problems that accompany that disease?

WENDELL POTTER: Well, they need to hold the insurance industry accountable and make sure that it does make good on what the president said. And that is to waive deductibles. Chris Murphy, the senator from Connecticut, last week, wrote a letter to the CEOs of the biggest insurance companies asking just that. I’m still waiting to find out if the senator has heard from any of those CEOs. I’m kind of doubtful that he has, or that if he has, they’re saying anything promising. The problem is that there will be certainly pressure from Congress or policymakers and from the public for them to do that, to do the right thing. But keep in mind that these big insurance companies, certainly the ones that I worked for — Cigna and Aetna, Humana, before that — other big insurance companies like Aetna, United and Anthem, they’re owned by shareholders and their shareholders like things the way they are. They like the fact that Americans have to spend a lot of money out of their own pockets before their coverage kicks in. So it’ll be interesting to see who wins out in this — the shareholders for these companies or the public.

SCOTT HARRIS: Wendell, you’ve talked often about how people across this country have died because of lack of healthcare due to the high deductibles and the inaccessibility of health insurance. And certainly during this coronavirus pandemic, we’re going to see a lot of people die, unfortunately. And I wanted to ask you, what is the message you’d like to send out to our listeners in terms of another world being possible where we don’t have this kind of unnecessary suffering and death because of a health insurance system that really leaves out tens of millions of people?

WENDELL POTTER: I think that Americans are beginning to wake up. One of the things that we saw even just during the first primaries that have been held, more than 20 of them, that every single state where Democrats voted in entrance and exit polls, they said they supported replacing private insurance plans with Medicare for All. So it has widespread and growing support. And I think we’re going to see that support increase as we go deeper into this crisis. And more and more Americans realize just how we’ve been sold a bill of goods by the insurance industry over many years.

During the debates over the last several months, even the Democrat candidates saying that Americans love their private health insurance and don’t support a government-run plan. If we were to have those debates right now, I think those candidates would sing a different tune. Americans are really especially aware right now of just how unfair and expensive and dysfunctional our system really is and that we absolutely have to have a change. It may take something like this – I hate to say it – for our elected officials to wake up to this reality.

Wendell Potter is founder of the investigative news website, Tarbell.org. See Potter’s recent article, “Coronavirus Pandemic Reveals Just How Devastating the Greed of For-Profit Insurance Industry Has Become.” 

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