Hilda Sarkisyan became a tireless advocate for change when she lost her daughter Nataline to cancer after their insurance company denied coverage for a potentially life-saving transplant. Wendell Potter was an executive at that insurance company when Nataline’s death became the final wake-up call that led him to leave the industry and become a champion for health insurance reform. They stole the show as part of an impressive group of honorees yesterday at the 8th annual Ridenhour Prizes at the National Press Club. Hilda presented Wendell with the Ridenhour Book Prize for his book Deadly Spin, an exposé and indictment of the industry and its PR propaganda machine from the inside out.
Nataline Sarkisyan’s story is a heartbreaking example of how, left unchecked, the insurance industry will always put profits above lives. As Hilda put it: the doctors gave her daughter a 65% chance to live. Cigna denied the transplant and cut that chance to zero. She is an inspiration.
Wendell’s heroic decision that he couldn’t keep silent about his former industry has pulled back the curtain to show that such decisions are the rule, not the exception, at insurance companies. No one could be more deserving of an award given by the Fertel Foundation and the Nation Institute that honors “those who speak truth to power.”
Both have taken on a David vs Goliath fight to reform a little-known law that has made the health insurance industry the only industry in America that cannot be held accountable in court.
The Sarkisyans were unable to sue Cigna for their daughter’s death. Americans who get their health insurance in whole or in part through a private employer, as the Sarkisyans did, have no legal right to sue their insurer for damages.
A 1987 Supreme Court ruling misread the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) with the result that the 132 million consumers who obtain health insurance through a private employer cannot take their insurer to court when it wrongly refuses to pay a claim, even if that refusal results in death. The ruling created two classes of patients: those with no right to hold their insurer accountable, and those who obtain their insurance through the federal government, or purchase it directly with their own funds, who still have the right to sue.
The rest of the truth-tellers honored yesterday included progressive champion Senator Russ Feingold who spent his Senate career sticking to his principles instead of taking the politically expedient route, a group of filmmakers whose documentary Budrus about Palestinians and Israelis working together to save a village was prescient in showing how non-violent action can make change in the Middle East, and NSA-whistleblower Thomas Drake who exposed massive fraud, waste and abuse and is now being prosecuted under the Espionage Act for his efforts.
The hold-no-punches activism that the Ridenhour Prizes honor are the only way to put powerful corporations onto the defensive and bring about real change in this country. How fitting that the prizes were presented in Washington DC, where inspiration to take a stand and proof that it makes a difference can be in short supply.