News & Politics

Exposing the Insurance Industry's Vast Conspiracy to Smear Michael Moore

A whistleblower's allegations against the health insurance industry reveal sophisticated planning to squash Michael Moore's documentary, 'Sicko.'

It is the summer of 2006; Filmmaker Michael Moore is putting the finishing touches on his latest film, Sicko, a documentary that purports to take on the health care system in the United States. Coming on the heels of the critical and box office successes of Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, the highest grossing documentary in history, Moore is hot, Hollywood hot. People's Choice Awards hot -- in January of 2005, at the 31st Annual People's Choice Awards, Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, receives the "Favorite Movie" award. Titans in the insurance and pharmaceutical industries have every reason to be concerned.

No one, other than Moore and his crew know what's in Sicko, although it appears that health care industry operatives are doing all they can to sniff out the details. Variety reported that when plans for the making of Sicko became public, several large drug companies "mounted plans to combat the doc, including circulating memos to employees warning them not to cooperate with Moore." The memos instructed their employees to be on the lookout for "a scruffy guy in a baseball cap" going around asking too many questions. PhRMA (Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America), which represents the country's leading pharmaceutical research and biotechnology companies, had not yet issued any public statements regarding the film.

Fast forward four-plus years: In a recent appearance promoting his news book Deadly Spin, on MSNBC's "Countdown with Keith Olbermann," Wendell Potter, a former vice president of corporate communications at CIGNA -- one of the United States' largest health insurance companies -- and now a fellow at the Center for Media and Democracy, a corporate watchdog group, talked about how America's health care industry worked feverishly to defeat President Barack Obama's health care reform initiatives.

During the course of the interview, Potter mentioned the insurance industry's plan to discredit Michael Moore prior to the release of Sicko. "We ran a story in our online newspaper saying Moore is embarking on a documentary -- and if you see a scruffy guy in a baseball cap, you'll know who it is," Stephen Lederer, a spokesman for Pfizer Global Research and Development, told the Los Angeles Times at the time.

"Moore's past work has been marked by negativity, so we can only assume it won't be a fair and balanced portrayal," said Rachel Bloom, executive director of corporate communications the Delaware-based firm, AstraZeneca. "His movies resemble docudramas more than documentaries."

Listening to Potter's revelations, I flashed back to the spring of 2006 when I received a e-mail from an editor of a publication called the Pharmacist (no longer in print) asking me if I was interested in writing a story about the film. Since I had never heard of the publication, and assumed it was an industry-sponsored magazine, I hesitated to take the assignment, although it sounded like it could be a bigger payday than I was accustomed to. (It wasn't.)

First of all, I told the editor, I didn't know anything more about the film than anyone else. Second, I was a fan of Moore's work, having written about him previously, and I was not about to do an industry-funded hit piece on him.

In the course of my investigation of the Pharmacist I discovered that it was a publication for pharmacists, published by a West Chester, Pennsylvania-based organization called Result Media, LLC. It had an un-developed Web site that didn't bother to upload any of the magazine's content. I also found out that it tackled issues rarely dealt with in your basic trade publication. In the same issue my piece ran, the cover story was headlined "Does Sex sell Rx? Pharma Sales Reps Talk."

I accepted the assignment, telling my editor I would write a piece, not about what was in the film, but about the pre-premiere hubbub.

During the course of writing the piece I interviewed John Stauber, founder and then executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, who is an expert on corporate shenanigans and corporate spin. I also interviewed Michael Wilson, the writer/producer/director of the documentary Michael Moore Hates America (the title pretty much defined his views).

As I sought comments from industry representatives, I called and e-mailed (identifying myself as a reporter working on a piece for the Pharmacist) the public relations departments of five major pharmaceutical companies, three of which -- Johnson & Johnson, Eli Lilly and Pfizer -- did not return calls or e-mail. Two other companies -- Abbott and Bristol Meyers -- had no comment, but both referred me to PhRMA.

Arturo Silva, a PhRMA media spokesperson, was kind enough to send along a statement from PhRMA senior vice-president Ken Johnson, dated July 20, 2006. It was the first (I was told) public statement on Sicko issued by PhRMA. My article, titled "'Sicko': Should the Pharmaceutical Industry Be Concerned About Michael Moore?" appeared in the August 2006 edition of the Pharmacist. The piece did not appear online, and as per my contract, I could not republish it anywhere else.

I wrote then (I hope the statute of limitations has passed):

Johnson pointed out that, given Moore's previous work, he seemed incapable of providing a "balanced, thoughtful and well-researched" document about the health care system. He called Sicko Moore's "latest escapade" in "finding new ways to advance his political agenda." Johnson went on to tout "one of PhRMA's public service partnerships, the Partnership for Prescription Awareness (PPA)" and presciently claimed that he doubted you would "hear about the PPA from Michael Moore on his Web site or new film.

I concluded my piece by asking whether the release of Sicko would "bring America's health care crisis out of the shadows of such critical issues as the war in Iraq, the war on terrorism, or immigration? While Moore and his supporters are busy publicizing the film and defending it against attacks from both conservatives and Big Pharma, will people go to the theaters, watch the film and be motivated to get involved in the public policy debate? We'll know the answers to these questions sometime next year."

Now, four years later, we know:

  • The public went to see Sicko; a 2009 listing of the "Top Grossing Documentary Films" had Sicko in third place, behind Fahrenheit 9/11 and March of the Penguins;
  • The insurance and pharmaceutical industries were worried enough to do their best to discredit both Moore and the film;
  • Barack Obama was elected in 2008 and his administration offered up severely limited health care reform legislation that contained no public option;
  • The people that were most motivated to speak out during the public debate over health care reform were Tea Party folks -- supported by huge donations from industry-sponsored operations -- who opposed health care reform.

Thanks to the tireless work of Wendell Potter and his new book Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR Is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans, we now know a lot more of the sordid details. On his Web site, Potter points out that "Since I walked away as head of communications at a top health insurance company in May of 2008, I've worked tirelessly as an outspoken critic of corporate PR and the distortion and fear manufactured by America's health insurance industry. It is a PR juggernaut that is bankrolled by millions of dollars, rivaling lobbying budgets and underwriting many 'non-partisan' and 'grassroots' organizations."

Writing about Potter's book, Publishers Week pointed out that "The disinformation campaigns with which health insurance companies hide misdeeds and manipulate public policy are laid bare in this searing j'accuse by one of their own. Potter ... whose whistle-blowing congressional testimony made a splash, takes us into the war rooms where he and his fellow flacks battled bad publicity -- their counterattack against the documentary Sicko included employee training in how to weather a Michael Moore ambush -- and fought to stymie health-care legislation. (He helped formulate the rhetoric of socialism and death panels that thundered from Republican podiums.)

"He exposes the PR pros' propaganda tricks -- fake grass-roots organizations, bogus scientific studies -- and recounts his shame-faced repentance. But he also trenchantly critiques the failure of America's for-profit health-insurance system: the underhanded methods insurers use to 'dump the sick'; the skyrocketing premiums and deductibles that put health care beyond the reach of millions; the obscene salaries executives rake in while denying benefits to patients. These criticisms aren't new, but Potter's street cred and deep knowledge of the industry make his indictment unusually vivid and compelling."

Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering right-wing groups and movements.
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