He used to say Canada’s health care was risky. Now he says it’s the future.

Why We Wrote This

Given the diverging trajectories of the United States and Canada during the pandemic, their different health care models are getting renewed attention – especially from a man who says he once lied about the dangers one of them posed.

Carlos Osorio/Reuters
A family watches as Toronto police and the city's front-line responders pay tribute to health care workers in Toronto, Ontario, April 19, 2020. Canada's response to the pandemic has been markedly better than that of the United States.

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“Amid America’s #COVID19 disaster, I must come clean about a lie I spread as a health insurance exec: We spent big $$ to push the idea that Canada’s single-payer system was awful & the U.S. system much better. It was a lie & the nations’ COVID responses prove it.”

Wendell Potter, the author of that tweet, says it has hit a nerve at a moment when Americans feel vulnerable, with the world’s largest share of infections (over 3.3 million) and deaths (more than 135,000), and no sign of the pandemic abating. And judging by the response it has gotten – more than 86,000 retweets – he may be right.

He told the Monitor in an interview he believes this could be a pivotal moment for health care reform, and sees a clear role for himself directing a lens at how, from the inside, the corporate world conspires to shape policy and public opinion, even when the data is not accurate.

Mr. Potter summed up his tweet: “You learn a lot about a health-care system when a global crisis hits & different nations have different results. Canada’s single-payer system is saving lives. The U.S. profit-driven corporate model is failing. I’ll regret slandering Canada’s system for the rest of my life.”

A Canadian and American might share more in common than any two foreigners – except when it comes to health care.

Americans routinely fear Canada’s universal, single-payer system as a socialist regime of endless waits; Canadians look in equal panic upon American insurance policies and its patchwork of copayments and premiums.

Wendell Potter is a big reason why.

And the former American health insurance executive, amid a deadly pandemic that has hit the U.S. per capita much harder, revealed in a recent tweet his role in keeping that gulf as gaping as possible.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

“Amid America’s #COVID19 disaster, I must come clean about a lie I spread as a health insurance exec: We spent big $$ to push the idea that Canada’s single-payer system was awful & the U.S. system much better. It was a lie & the nations’ COVID responses prove it.”

The six-tweet thread is his most viral, garnering more than 86,000 retweets. He says it hit a nerve at a moment when Americans feel vulnerable, with the world’s largest share of cases (over 3.3 million) and deaths (more than 135,000), and no sign of the pandemic abating.

He believes this could be a pivotal moment for health care reform, and sees a clear role for himself directing a lens at how, from the inside, the corporate world conspires to shape policy and public opinion, even when the data is not accurate. Some of the public has been unwilling to accept his apology, but he says that goes with the territory of the whistleblower.

“I do think that what we’re going through now can serve as a real wake-up call for a lot more people,” he says, especially as the U.S. compares trajectories of the pandemic in other countries, including Canada, which has seen 110,000 cases and fewer than 9,000 deaths. “People just simply can’t imagine that anybody in any other country could do things better than we Americans can do it. And so you start with that mindset for a lot of folks.”

Those attitudes were shaped by Mr. Potter as vice president in communications of Cigna, which he joined in 1993. He rose through the ranks, spinning data that helped consolidate profits for his company. He says he would take “cherry picked” anecdotes from the industry group, America’s Health Insurance Plans, that he then turned into talking points that he made sure got into the hands of lobbyists, politicians, and journalists – creating a propaganda machine that he claims he believed at the time.

He worked tirelessly to make Americans think Canadians waited, fatally, for necessary care by honing in on certain data. For example, knee replacements can be delayed in Canada (one study showed 30% of patients had to wait beyond the recommended time).

Jimmy Borg/AP/File
Wendell Potter speaks during a panel at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 20, 2012, in Park City, Utah. A former insurance executive, Mr. Potter says he used to magnify flaws in Canada's health-care system to scare Americans away from it, something he says he’ll regret for the rest of his life.

“You highlight that and you make people think that’s the way it is for everything, and that Canadians are flocking to the U.S. to get the care that they need because they just can’t get it in a timely fashion in Canada,” he says. “You harp on it relentlessly year after year after year. And Americans are afraid that if we had a system like Canada’s, in their mind they wouldn’t be able to see the doctor when they needed to. They wouldn’t be able to go to the hospital when they needed to.”

Meanwhile, most Canadians receive the care they need when it’s urgent. And while not perfect, the system is criticized here not because it’s universal, but because drugs and long-term care aren’t included.

His aha moment came more than a decade ago on a visit home to eastern Tennessee, when he learned of a free medical clinic being held just over the border in Virginia on the grounds of a county fair. “It was one of the most startling things I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said, desperate Americans lined up, some treated in animal stalls.

As a former newspaper man dedicated to accuracy and having been brought up as a Southern Baptist, he calls that experience an “epiphany.” He resigned in 2008. Now a major advocate for health care reform as an author and speaker, he also leads the organization Medicare for All NOW!

In part of his most recent Twitter thread, he apologized for his “disservice.” Not all were willing to let him off so easily. One user replied: “The ‘disservice’ you did kept policies in tact that killed thousands. Do you feel directly responsible? ‘Disservice’ seems...light.”

He says he does bear responsibility. “My biggest regret is that people undoubtedly have died. I know they died because of the inequities, the unfairness of our system, the expensive system that requires so many people to pay out-of-pocket money they just don’t have.”

Today he feels society might have an easier time recognizing the shortcomings of American health care after experiencing the grief and anxiety the coronavirus has wrought.

“Americans [have feared] that if we moved to a system of universal coverage, in which there is more equality in our system, somehow they will lose something,” he says. “There’s no doubt that we do have some of the best facilities, and some of the best doctors in the world. What is not fully understood, although I think there’s more of an understanding of it now, is that exceptionally good care is sometimes available only to those who have the most money.”

He summed up his tweet: “You learn a lot about a health-care system when a global crisis hits & different nations have different results. Canada’s single-payer system is saving lives. The U.S. profit-driven corporate model is failing. I’ll regret slandering Canada’s system for the rest of my life.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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