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Posted at 1:30 PM ET, 01/28/2011

Health care propaganda wars

By Wendell Potter
Guest Blogger

About this blog: For years, Wendell Potter helped craft the message that health care companies wanted delivered to the public. But since leaving his job as head of corporate communications for the health insurance giant Cigna in 2008, Potter has delivered a very different message – that the industry makes promises it never intends to keep, flouts regulations created to protect consumers and uses disinformation to corrupt political debate. He has poured his knowledge into his book, “Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR Is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans,” recently published by Bloomsbury Press. Here, he discusses how the PR campaign is waged over health care reform.


“We lost the messaging battle.”

That’s how Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) responded to a reporter’s question, shortly before the Senate voted on its version of the health care reform bill last Christmas eve. She had been asked why the Senate bill did not include the public option that she and most other Democrats —including the president — once felt was an essential element of reform.

If Sen. McCaskill had been more forthcoming, she might have added that the Democrats’ strategy for passing reform did not include a plan to counter what they surely must have known would be a well-financed campaign, led behind the scenes by the health insurance industry, to scare the public away from the public option and other reform ideas that industry executives, investors and Wall Street analysts didn’t like.

Even if the bill the president signed last March had included the public option, it would not have been a “government takeover of healthcare,” a phrase we heard countless times during the course of the debate and the recent midterm campaigns.

That carefully crafted buzz term, which came straight from PR and communications consultants paid in part by Americans’ health insurance premiums, was repeated so often that PolitiFact, the St. Petersburg Times’ independent fact-checking website, picked it as the “Lie of the Year.”

Special interests have defeated or shaped reform decade after decade by mounting fear-mongering campaigns to turn people against the proposals that likely would do them much good but which might impair corporate profits. The “government-takeover” myth was at the core of the special interests’ fear (and anger) mongering campaign this time.

As a former PR chief for two of the country’s largest health insurers, I kept waiting for the Democrats and reform advocates to roll out their own communications campaign to make a persuasive case for the public option and to refute the government-takeover lie (and its derivatives, like the creation of government-run death panels) that have been disseminated around the clock by political and business allies of the insurers and other special interests that profit from the status quo. I also kept waiting for the mainstream media to call out the lies and the liars. I still am.

One of the reasons it has been so difficult for the president, members of Congress and others to explain the benefits of the reform law is that most of those benefits are just about impossible to reduce to an emotion-packed sound bite, as “government takeover” is.

The most important word in that sentence, by the way, is “emotion.” Advocates of reform have done a reasonably adequate job of laying out the facts of the good things the new law will do, but they didn’t pay enough attention to finding just the right words — and string them together in just the right way — to communicate in ways that would resonate emotionally with people.

If reform advocates have a chance of succeeding in any endeavor, not just health care, they must study their opponents’ playbook and develop their own strategies to keep the inevitable lies from being believed. It won’t be easy or cheap, but not trying is the equivalent of surrender.

By Wendell Potter  | January 28, 2011; 1:30 PM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  
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Next: BOOK WORLD - January 30, 2011


Well said. An excellent analysis and summary of the obfuscation surrounding the debate. Fear-mongering occurs on other issues, well, and it's most frustrating when politicos accuse others of actions that are, in fact, emblematic of their own misbehavior.

Posted by: mgrimaldi | January 28, 2011 3:32 PM | Report abuse

There can be a difference between what you and a health insurance company consider healthy. Some insurers will say that you have a health condition if you smoke, are overweight, are taking prescriptions, or had a medical condition in the past. If this describes you, you may want to search and read “Wise Health Insurance” on the web.

Posted by: byronpatel | January 29, 2011 12:07 AM | Report abuse

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