The health care scare
I sold Americans a lie about Canadian medicine. Now we’re paying the price.
Wendell PotterAugust 6, 2020
In my prior life as an insurance executive, it was my job to deceive Americans about their health care. I misled people to protect profits. In fact, one of my major objectives, as a corporate propagandist, was to do my part to “enhance shareholder value.” That work contributed directly to a climate in which fewer people are insured, which has shaped our nation’s struggle against the coronavirus, a condition that we can fight only if everyone is willing and able to get medical treatment. Had spokesmen like me not been paid to obscure important truths about the differences between the U.S. and Canadian health-care systems, tens of thousands of Americans who have died during the pandemic might still be alive.
In 2007, I was working as vice president of corporate communications for Cigna. That summer, Michael Moore was preparing to release his latest documentary, “Sicko,” contrasting American health care with that in other rich countries. (Naturally, we looked terrible.) I spent months meeting secretly with my counterparts at other big insurers to plot our assault on the film, which contained many anecdotes about patients who had been denied coverage for important treatments. One example was 3-year-old Annette Noe. When her parents asked Cigna to pay for two cochlear implants that would allow her to hear, we agreed to cover only one.
Clearly my colleagues and I would need a robust defense. On a task force for the industry’s biggest trade association, America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), we talked about how we might make health-care systems in Canada, France, Britain and even Cuba look just as bad as ours. We enlisted APCO Worldwide, a giant PR firm. Agents there worked with AHIP to put together a binder of laminated talking points for company flacks like me to use in news releases and statements to reporters.
Here’s an example from one AHIP brief in the binder: “A May 2004 poll found that 87% of Canada’s business leaders would support seeking health care outside the government system if they had a pressing medical concern.” The source was a 2004 book by Sally Pipes, president of the industry-supported Pacific Research Institute, titled “Miracle Cure: How to Solve America’s Health Care Crisis and Why Canada Isn’t the Answer.” Another bullet point, from the same book, quoted the CEO of the Canadian Association of Radiologists as saying that “the radiology equipment in Canada is so bad that ‘without immediate action radiologists will no longer be able to guarantee the reliability and quality of examinations.’ ”
Much of this runs against the experience of many Americans, especially the millions who take advantage of low pharmaceutical prices in Canada to meet their prescription needs. But there were more specific reasons to be skeptical of those claims. We didn’t know, for example, who conducted that 2004 survey or anything about the sample size or methodology — or even what criteria were used to determine who qualified as a “business leader.” We didn’t know if the assertion about imaging equipment was based on reliable data or was an opinion. You could easily turn up comparable complaints about outdated equipment at U.S. hospitals.
(Contacted by The Washington Post, an AHIP spokesman said this perspective was “from the pre-ACA past. We are future focused by building on what works and fixing what doesn’t.” He added that the organization “believes everyone deserves affordable, high-quality coverage and care — regardless of health status, income, or pre-existing conditions.” An APCO Worldwide spokesperson told The Post that the company “has been involved in supporting our clients with the evolution of the health care system. We are proud of our work.” Cigna did not respond to requests for comment.)
Nevertheless, I spent much of that year as an industry spokesman, my last after 20 years in the business, spreading AHIP’s “information” to journalists and lawmakers to create the impression that our health-care system was far superior to Canada’s, which we wanted people to believe was on the verge of collapse. The campaign worked. Stories began to appear in the press that cast the Canadian system in a negative light. And when Democrats began writing what would become the Affordable Care Act in early 2009, they gave no serious consideration to a publicly financed system like Canada’s. We succeeded so wildly at defining that idea as radical that Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), then chair of the Senate Finance Committee, had single-payer supporters ejected from a hearing.
Today, the respective responses of Canada and the United States to the coronavirus pandemic prove just how false the ideas I helped spread were. There are more than three times as many coronavirus infections per capita in the United States, and the mortality rate is twice the rate in Canada. And although we now test more people per capita, our northern neighbor had much earlier successes with testing, which helped make a difference throughout the pandemic.
The most effective myth we perpetuated — the industry trots it out whenever major reform is proposed — is that Canadians and people in other single-payer countries have to endure long waits for needed care. Just last year, in a statement submitted to a congressional committee for a hearing on the Medicare for All Act of 2019, AHIP maintained that “patients would pay more to wait longer for worse care” under a single-payer system.
While it’s true that Canadians sometimes have to wait weeks or months for elective procedures (knee replacements are often cited), the truth is that they do not have to wait at all for the vast majority of medical services. And, contrary to another myth I used to peddle — that Canadian doctors are flocking to the United States — there are more doctors per 1,000 people in Canada than here. Canadians see their doctors an average of 6.8 times a year, compared with just four times a year in this country.
Most important, no one in Canada is turned away from doctors because of a lack of funds, and Canadians can get tested and treated for the coronavirus without fear of receiving a budget-busting medical bill. That undoubtedly is one of the reasons Canada’s covid-19 death rate is so much lower than ours. In America, exorbitant bills are a defining feature of our health-care system. Despite the assurances from President Trump and members of Congress that covid-19 patients will not be charged for testing or treatment, they are on the hook for big bills, according to numerous reports.
That is not the case in Canada, where there are no co-pays, deductibles or coinsurance for covered benefits. Care is free at the point of service. And those laid off in Canada don’t face the worry of losing their health insurance. In the United States, by contrast, more than 40 million have lost their jobs during this pandemic, and millions of them — along with their families — also lost their coverage.
Then there’s quality of care. By numerous measures, it is better in Canada. Some examples: Canada has far lower rates than the United States of hospitalizations from preventable causes like diabetes (almost twice as common here) and hypertension (more than eight times as common). And even though Canada spends less than half what we do per capita on health care, life expectancy there is 82 years, compared with 78.6 years in the United States.
When the pandemic reached North America, Canadian hospitals, which operate under annual global budgets — fixed payments typically allocated at the provincial and regional levels to cover operating expenses — were better prepared for the influx of patients than many U.S. hospitals. And Canada ramped up production of personal protective equipment much more quickly than we did.
Of the many regrets I have about what I once did for a living, one of the biggest is slandering Canada’s health-care system. If the United States had undertaken a different kind of reform in 2009 (or anytime since), one that didn’t rely on private insurance companies that have every incentive to limit what they pay for, we’d be a healthier country today. Living without insurance dramatically increases your chances of dying unnecessarily. Over the past 13 years, tens of thousands of Americans have probably died prematurely because, unlike our neighbors to the north, they either had no coverage or were so inadequately insured that they couldn’t afford the care they needed. I live with that horror, and my role in it, every day.