Six years ago, Joe Cameron survived more than two months on life support, racking up a bill of more than $1 million. He paid less than $2,000 out of his pocket, thanks to the health insurance he had through Medicare Advantage. Needless to say, he’s pleased with his outcome, and now speaks highly of the program that paid for his life-saving care.
But according to ABC’s “Good Morning America” host Chris Cuomo, Cameron is “a favorite example for the industry,” saying he is a go-to interviewee when they don’t want to talk about cases like Angela Dispenza, who claims her insurance company refused to pay for medically necessary rehabilitation after a back injury.
In his December 19 segment about UnitedHealthcare, one of the private companies that participates in the Medicare Advantage program, Cuomo said the insurance company refused interview requests, instead referring ABC News to Cameron and to America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), the insurance industry’s national association.
“What UnitedHealthcare didn’t tell us is Cameron has been flying around the country to lobby in favor of the program,” Cuomo said, splicing in footage of Cameron meeting with President Bush.
So does Cameron get paid to praise private insurance and Medicare Advantage?
“Hell no,” Cameron told the Business & Media Institute in a telephone interview December 19. “They have never paid me one dime compensation.”
Cameron said Cuomo misrepresented his acknowledgement that UnitedHealthcare has paid his travel expenses in the past. “Around the country” amounted to one trip to Washington, D.C., to meet with elected officials – including President Bush – about Medicare Part D, Cameron said.
Cameron said he has taken three other trips to the nation’s capital at the expense of outside organizations like the Coalition for Medicare Choices, an AHIP-affiliated organization that took Cameron to a conference in Washington, D.C., in October featuring several hundred beneficiaries, and RetireSafe, a grassroots organization that advocates a free-market approach to Medicare.
“It irritated … me very badly because I am not representing any insurance company in respect to my story,” Cameron told BMI. “The lady in New York (Dispenza), if she has a valid case I’m the first one to say, ‘Insurance company get on the ball, find out what’s going on and if you have an obligation to pay that claim, you better be there.’”
Cameron compared the payment for his trips to Washington to ABC’s own offer to fly him to New York for an interview. He says he declined, so a crew traveled to his Fort Worth, Texas, home to tape an interview there. It was during that interview, Cameron said, that ABC tried to get him to turn on the insurance companies.
“They tried to get me when they were interviewing here in my home, to make the statement that people were refused medical treatment because they didn’t have insurance,” he said, “and three times specifically I told them, ‘No I do not know of any circumstance where anybody has ever been denied medical treatment,’” he said. That footage did not show up in the final story.
“I’m angry now cause of the way they did me, because they made the implication that I was affiliated with the insurance companies, that they were flying me all over the nation and that I’m their spokesperson,” Cameron said. “I’m not their spokesperson. I’m speaking for Joe Cameron.”
“By God, I spent 68 days on life support in Dallas just six years ago and I was in the same condition that lady is in New York if not worse,” he said. “I am not here trying to protect the insurance companies.”
When Cuomo spoke to a representative from AHIP, he asked her whether it was common that people were in the hospital but shouldn't really be there. The interview was dropped into the story about Dispenza, who was told by her company that she did not need to be hospitalized for her care.
Susan Pisano, spokeswoman for AHIP, asked Cuomo: "Are we talking about a particular patient now?"
"No. ...I could be talking about hundreds of patients," Cuomo said.
According to Bridgette Maney of ABC News, the network stands by its story. "Our reporting was based on a number of interviews with Mr. Cameron and the story is accurate," she said in a Dec. 20 e-mail.