Wendell Potter came face-to-face with reality of U.S. health care in 2007 when he visited the Virginia-Kentucky District Fair.
There, he saw hundreds of people waiting in the pouring rain for free dental and medical care in the livestock barns.
“It was like I’d walked out of the U.S and into a war-torn country,” Potter said. “It was a true revelation for me.”
That and the high-profile death of a 17-year-old who was denied coverage for a liver transplant proved too much for Potter’s conscience, he said.
He quit his job as a public relations executive for health care provider Cigna in 2008 and became a critic of the very corporations he’d spent nearly two decades defending.
In a speech Wednesday at the MU School of Medicine, he compared the U.S. health care system to those of other countries and discredited the corporate practices he learned as an insider.
“From 1993 to 2008, I worked to perpetuate the notion that the United States has the best health care system in the world and pushed back against any critics who said otherwise,” Potter said.
In the talk, entitled “Medicare For All,” Potter recalled that his experience at Cigna was to bolster the company’s bottom line, meaning that low-income citizens, as well as those with pre-existing conditions, were effectively shut out of the system when they could not pay.
According to Potter and data from the Commonwealth Fund and the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average cost of family premiums has nearly tripled since 1999, from about $6,000 to almost $20,000 today. The amount spent on deductibles has gone up by 250 percent since 2005.
Despite the highest health care expenditures in the world, the U.S. ranks among the lowest in health care system performance rankings.
Throughout his speech, Potter reiterated his ideal image of a United States where no one goes bankrupt because of an inability to pay health fees, no one ends up in the ER because an illness was not treated soon enough, and no one loses their coverage if they lose a job.
His statements frequently prompted murmurs of agreement and applause from the audience.
During a question-and-answer portion of the talk, a few followed their questions with brief speeches of their own about ensuring that every American receives equal care.
Potter called for more people to educate themselves on the health care system. He said he believes strongly in solutions-based journalism and even runs his own nonprofit investigative site called Tarbell.
While he agreed that health care needs to be addressed mainly by those in power, Potter believes that addressing crowds like the one in Columbia will educate people about a complicated topic and empower them to vote for and speak with lawmakers.
“Any adjustments we’ve made to the system so far, like the Affordable Care Act, while somewhat good, amount to tinkering on an old car that’s outgrown its usefulness,” Potter said. “More and more of us are going to be (undercovered or without health care) unless we do something and do it fast.”
One member of the audience, Wilma Rajcher, said she was a physician for 25 years and agreed with Potter’s sentiments but added that repairing the system is bigger than simply educating the general public.
It requires action.
“Those in Congress don’t feel the effects of poor Medicare plans like we do,” she said. “Until those in power understand and receive the same treatment we do, nothing is going to change.”