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A health care 'Judas' recounts his conversion
A clinic such as this, where countless uninsured line up at dawn for free medical care, convinced one man to quit his Cigna job.
June 27th, 2012
01:46 PM ET

A health care 'Judas' recounts his conversion

By John Blake, CNN

(CNN) - When Wendell Potter first saw them, he froze.

“It felt like touching an electrical fence,” he says. “I remember tearing up and thinking, how could this be real.”

Thousands of them had lined up under a cloudy sky in an open field. Many had camped out the night before. When their turns came, doctors treated them in animal stalls and on gurneys placed on rain-soaked sidewalks.

They were Americans who needed basic medical care. Potter had driven to the Wise County Fairgrounds in Virginia in July 2007 after reading that a group called Remote Area Medical, which flew American doctors to remote Third World villages, was hosting a free outdoor clinic.

Potter, a Cigna health care executive who ate from gold-rimmed silverware in corporate jets, says that morning was his “Road to Damascus” experience.

“It looked like a refugee camp,” Potter says. “It just hit me like a bolt of lightning. What I was doing for a living was making it necessary for people to resort to getting care in animal stalls.”

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision Thursday on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act is a colossal legal and political issue. For Potter, though, the issue became a crisis of faith.

For the last three years, Potter has been one of the most visible supporters of President Barack Obama’s health care legislation. He has testified before Congress, appeared on countless talk shows and written a tell-all book on the health care industry called "Deadly Spin." With his Southern drawl and mild professorial manner, he has been described as a health care industry “Judas” in some media accounts.

Yet none of the media coverage of Potter has explored what drove his conversion - his faith. Potter was raised as a Southern Baptist in Kingsport, Tennessee, where he says his parents instilled in him an appreciation for helping others.

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He says the New Testament is filled with Jesus providing universal health care - he healed the poor and outcast.

“Christians needed to be reminded of what Jesus did,” Potter says.  “It was important to him for people to have access to healing care. That’s what he did. A lot of people of faith lose sight of that.”

A health care hit man

Potter says he lost sight of that because the health care issue was an abstraction to him when he worked at Cigna as a public relations executive. Part of his job was to snuff out stories in the media that made the health care industry look bad.

But his visit to that free clinic in Virginia that July morning shook him. In a column that he wrote for the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative news organization, where he works as a senior analyst, he wrote:

“Until that day, I had been able to think, talk and write about the U.S. health care system and the uninsured in the abstract, as if real-life human beings were not involved.”

Yet even after that visit to the clinic, Potter says, he still stayed with his Cigna job. He had a son and a daughter, a six-figure salary, bonuses.  He felt trapped even as he resumed his job.

“It was always gnawing at me,” he says of the experience at the clinic.

There was another reason he couldn’t leave his job.  It was his identity.

Wendell Potter was moved by his faith to quit his Cigna job.

“Our egos are tied to our jobs even if the jobs we’re doing are not what we thought we were going to be doing,” he says. “Our jobs, to a certain extent, help define who we are.”

Potter found a new source of identity - his faith. He read the Bible and found particular solace in the New Testament book of Philippians, where the Apostle Paul advises Christians to “cast all their anxiety” on God. He also read “Profiles in Courage” to fortify his resolve.

He finally quit, and eventually became one of the most visible advocates for health care reform.

“I felt that if I were on my death bed and looked back on my life and realized that I had not taken this risk to do the right thing, I would have huge regrets,” he says.

Why churches are silent

Potter now spends some of his time talking to churches. He says an estimated 45,000 Americans die each year because they don’t have insurance that provides them access to the care they need.

“This doesn’t happen in any other developed country in the world, and it should not happen here, the richest nation on the planet,” he says.

When he takes this message to churches, some shut their doors, he says. They don’t want to hear him. Pastors know the debate over health care divides their congregations.

“A lot of pastors are just too afraid to get involved in this and step up and say this is a moral issue,” he says. “They’re afraid of offending their parishioners.”

Some of Potter’s most consistent supporters, though, are former colleagues in the health care industry.  "I've had calls and emails from people I used to work with in the industry who thank me quietly," he says.

No matter what the Supreme Court decides, Potter says health care changes are inevitable. The current system of for-profit health insurance companies is not sustainable. He says some Americans dismiss the uninsured, but they don’t realize how close they are to joining them.

He says many of the people who attended the Remote Area Medical clinic were working people. Their jobs simply didn’t provide enough good medical care. While many companies provide health insurance to people with pre-existing conditions such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol, most people with these maladies wouldn’t get coverage if they suddenly lost their job.

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“Most of us are just a layoff from losing it,” he says of health insurance.

Potter can’t guess what the Supreme Court will decide, but he has predicted what the United States will look like if the health care law is struck down.

We’ve already seen that future in a book and movie called “The Hunger Games," he wrote in a recent column.

"The Hunger Games" depicts a future America renamed Panem, where the government is disconnected from the people who struggle every day for basic needs such as medical care while the wealthy have access to modern medicine, he wrote.

“This society-gone-bad scenario of denying basic care to citizens based on their income or social status seems on the big screen not only cruel and unusual but even incomprehensible,” he wrote. “In fact, it’s occurring every day in what is still called the United States.”

Potter didn’t have to see that future on the screen. He’d already seen it in Virginia, where doctors cared for Americans in animal stalls.

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Faith & Health • Health • Health care

soundoff (1,958 Responses)
  1. SteveOfTx

    What a lot of you are missing is that although the law does offer help to the uninsured poor, it's biggest benefit is that it requires those that can afford it to get some kind of coverage. Currently, you and I are footing the bill for a lot of these people that could afford it when they go to the ER and then don't pay. Republicans should be all for this as it forces people who can afford it to take responsibility. In fact, the mandate was a Republican idea and only became unpopular among them after Obama came out in favor of. Thomas Friedman (who wrote "The World is Flat") said that ObamaCare is not socialized medicine, it in fact ends the socialized medicine we have now where people go to the ER, get treatment, but don't pay.

    June 27, 2012 at 9:08 pm |
    • Healthcare Exec 68

      It is called an allowance for bad debt if you are for profit medical care org, and the cost of doing business. If yu are not for profit.....its part of your mission statement. Read up on your topic before you pop off with no knowledge of healthcare in America.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:11 pm |
  2. pineapple girl

    Jesus didn't say give your money to Rome so they can care for the poor. I for one am not looking forward to the government and the churches climbing in bed together anymore than they already are.

    June 27, 2012 at 9:08 pm |
    • Eli

      You are right. Jesus did not say "give your money to the poor" but He did say to take care of the widow, the orphan, and the poor. How do you translate that?

      June 27, 2012 at 9:19 pm |
  3. redone

    I make 44 k and I have two mortgages and I still can barely afford to drive to work and back in a car with over 257,000 miles on it and I can't afford another. I'm putting every penney away and I save cans so I can get money back for grocerys. I have insurance. And now you are going to tax some more so the crack head down the street can go see a doctor? I don't think so. I worked my way through college. I got screwed by my ex and I will not vote for this idiocy.

    June 27, 2012 at 9:08 pm |
    • shamgar50

      redone, So I guess you never use healthcare services? It benefits everyone, genius.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:15 pm |
    • Eli

      Redone, what makes you think that all the people who need health care are crack heads?

      June 27, 2012 at 9:21 pm |
  4. malw

    everyone will need healthcare at some point in their life regarless of who you are, what your age is or whether or not you can pay for it. in every community there are people with no health care coverage who go to the emergency room when they suddenly need health care. one way or another we will pay for everyones health care, through a mandate or through the increaseing medical costs that we see today. take your pick, i pick the mandate. i will take obamacare over what we have today without hesitation.

    June 27, 2012 at 9:08 pm |
    • pineapple girl

      its a mistake to trade freedoms for heathcare

      June 27, 2012 at 9:10 pm |
    • Dorchadas

      The freedom to die in the street is not a freedom worth having. It's shameful that we don't provide coverage to everyone like all the civilized countries do.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:12 pm |
    • J7

      So true. It's easy to talk about "those people" (the ones everyone seems to think are all crackheads) when it isn't you. Yet.

      Until one is:

      Laid off. No money. Suddenly sick? Welcome to the "those people" club.

      I'm thankful to God for a job and money to pay for my healthcare coverage. I am compassionate towards those who are struggling.

      If the people who are so anti this program are truly against spending money, they will vote against social security and Medicare too (even if/when they are over 65).

      June 27, 2012 at 9:15 pm |
  5. Eli

    Kudos to Mr. Potter. Your ethics is WAY above most!!

    June 27, 2012 at 9:08 pm |
  6. Loki

    Those who can't afford heathcare get minimal Medicaid. Bare minimum. Aspirin & Sucrets. No transplants, No hip replacements, No Intensive care. Maybe that will motivate you to work out your problems. If you can't...sorry. Maybe Bill Gates and Warren Buffet will take your call.

    June 27, 2012 at 9:07 pm |
  7. Carl, Secaucus, NJ

    If we're proud to be Americans, that should mean we're all in it together. Do we have a country here, or do we just have 300 million people who only care about themselves and people just like them? If America means only the success or failure of individuals, why do we bother having a country at all? Do we love America only to the extent it lets us do what we want for ourselves, and no further than that?

    June 27, 2012 at 9:07 pm |
    • pineapple girl

      WHAT?????????????????

      June 27, 2012 at 9:11 pm |
    • J7

      Amen

      We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

      (But, apparently, some right wingers could care less if people just die for avoidable reasons.)

      June 27, 2012 at 9:18 pm |
  8. Healthcare Exec 68

    Shame on you CNN. The feel good story on the eve of one of the largest rulings in recent Supreme Court history has no context for the uneducated, working poor, who have no idea that healthcare is free for them. Americans with no income, poor health, and atrocious eating habits like the person pictured have acces to all the healthcare they need, granted they are smart enough to fill out the correct forms. It is easy for a man with part ownership in a private jet to say that the ruling is good for Americans, glancing over the fact that CMS sets the rates for physician reimbursement and Medicade provides for the poor. How pious can you get.

    June 27, 2012 at 9:07 pm |
    • pineapple girl

      AS PIOUS AS YOU CAN GET AWAY WITH. I HATE CNN THE ONLY REASON I LOOK ONCE A DAY IS TO SEE WHAT THE ENEMY IS DOING.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:12 pm |
    • J7

      Yes, only people with atrocious eating habits are poor.

      Yes, that makes sense.

      Of course, it's the rich who can afford to spend all of their time exercising so that they can look at themselves in the mirror all the livelong day and think only about me, me, me.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:20 pm |
  9. Lew

    It seems like there should be both socialized and private medical facilities. Having one or the other clearly doesn't work. The problem always boils down to greed.

    June 27, 2012 at 9:06 pm |
  10. Bad Karma

    Americans, as ignorant as you may be, you end of paying for the uninsured either way. Right now you also pay a profit margin to the Health Insurance Industry!

    June 27, 2012 at 9:05 pm |
  11. Tom

    So the day before an historic ruling that hopefully finds that the US government cannot demand that all citizens must buy health insurance or be subject to fines by the IRS, CNN publishes this bleeding heart pice of garbage trying to illustrate what a good thing ObamaCare is???? Health care is messed up because of the Governments involvement with the added bureaucracy and putting someone betweeen me and my doctor. Having control of 50% of the health care market isn't enough with medicare, medicaid, the VA and all those government employees? We're broke as it is and ObamaCare has already proven to be another financial albtross to hang around us and our children's and grandchildrens neck.

    June 27, 2012 at 9:05 pm |
    • John Smith

      Exactly!! Now you get it! CNN is OWNED by the liberal presidents...so they prop up their guy.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:07 pm |
    • Kat

      This isn't about you and your doctor. It's about the millions who have none. Maybe yours will help them start.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:09 pm |
    • DE

      If you do a little research you will find that repugs originally wanted a mandate in any healthcare overhaul, and then they found out that the democrats also wanted a mandate and all of a sudden they were against it. After the right wingers on the Supreme Court kils the healthcare bill we will all be going back to picking up the tab for all the dead beats who won't buy insurance.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:10 pm |
  12. Chadwick Howard

    I know but handing health care to the government scares me. Nothing gets better under government control. Perhaps more government regulation would be great for the health care industry. Many of the hospitals used to be not for profit. If you were a doctor you knew you got paid a little less in these hospitals, but you did the good work. Now the greed starts with the hospital executives and trickles down to all the employees including doctors that get paid $500.00 per hour (or more) and nurse that get paid $100.00 or more an hour (I know many make less, but some make a lot). Most health care professionals (not doctors) can expect a six figure salary. Which is great for them, but what about the rest of us that can not afford to pay their six figure salary. The whole system is corrupt! It starts with college tuition for doctors and goes all the way into the for profit hospitals. Give medical care back to the not for profit industry. It worked great in that realm. Just like Rep. Paul said health care cost started to sky rocket when government got involved. It will only continue to rise as long as the vultures continue to pick at the American publics carcass!

    June 27, 2012 at 9:04 pm |
  13. juan

    BTW, what is the big deal with the mandate.. Aren't we all forced to buy auto insurance, home insurance etc....?

    June 27, 2012 at 9:04 pm |
    • fire0bama

      There is NO federal law that forces you to buy auto insurance. If your state requires it, it's your state's own decision. Besides, you can choose not to drive a vehicle.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:09 pm |
    • Steve

      No Juan. You have to buy car insurance IF you drive a car. You have to buy home owners insurance IF you want a mortgage. Don't want to buy car or home owners insurance? Bike to work from your apartment.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:11 pm |
    • TonyO

      Not everyone is required to have auto/homeowners insurance because NOT EVERYONE DRIVE A CAR OR OWNS A HOUSE! Thats the the big deal about the mandate. You make it to easy progs!

      June 27, 2012 at 9:18 pm |
  14. trex

    ..It only HITS PEOPLE when they see this for themselves. Our Military does MORE for our wounded enemies captured than some of or poorest citizens. ITS WRONG, and they dont care a witt.............

    June 27, 2012 at 9:03 pm |
  15. rr

    If he's relying on Christians to do the "Right Thing" even if it costs them money, he'll be waiting till "that" place Freezes over

    June 27, 2012 at 9:02 pm |
  16. Mei

    Yes, Jesus would want healthcare for everyone BUT not at the death of the unborn babies He creates. I am all for healthcare for everyone but without abortion coverage. Obama is a big time abortion advocate and goes out of his way to please Planned Parenthood (who for-profit is 90% abortion and only 10% other services). Obamacare is not the answer if it includes funding to kill babies or advocating for euthansia or gender selection (which is also part of the abortion issue). Americans can rally behind healthcare for all without including IMMORAL and UNCHRISTIAN issues like abortion in the plan.

    June 27, 2012 at 9:02 pm |
    • evensteven

      Do you support Medicare providing Viagra to those covered? It does. Is that something our government should be paying for?

      You don't find men up in arms because they get their Viagra for free or at a huge discount. I guess it's Uncle Sams way of "propping" these old guys up . . .

      June 27, 2012 at 9:06 pm |
    • Kevin

      Mei, please research before repeating already debunked claims. The original claim that PP allocated 97% of their budget was made by Senator Kyl of Arizona, which he subsequently retracted. The non Partisan Factcheck.org researched the issue and their findings are here: http://www.factcheck.org/2011/04/planned-parenthood/. Abortion services make up 3% of PP's budget. It's okay to feel outrage at even that low percentage. That's your right. Please don't be a sheep. Our political leaders will say anything that supports their ideology and they don't care if it's accurate or not. Research the issue and find out what is fact and what is political mumbo jumbo.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:18 pm |
    • Kevin

      And if you can cite page and paragraph where euthanasia and gender selection is a component of Obamacare, please post it. If you don't have it, refer to my previous post.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:20 pm |
    • Leslie Song

      I don't see you agitating against the wars which are killing our children. I don't see you refusing to 'pay for' military spending – which in fact cuts so deeply into the American budget that there is little left to help poor children. What would Jesus do? I don't see you fighting for children's lives AFTER they are born. You would tank health care for MILLIONS of poor American children because you do not believe you should have to 'pay for abortions.' Well guess what, I don't like the idea of 'paying for' people such as you, who would rather see millions of children go sick and neglected, because I think your ideas are immoral, but I do and will, because we live in a community and so we 'TAKE CARE OF EACH OTHER' even when we disagree. Otherwise, our country is chaos and misery and hatred. And NONE of that is Christian. Tell me what is Christian about denying millions of people health care because you disagree with a few? Please get your facts straight too – planned parenthood does not 'make a profit.' It is a non-profit and a huge part of what they do is give women HEALTH CARE, cancer screenings, all that. So don't just read the inaccurate sound bites Fox News or whoever throws at you – go get the real facts. Visit a planned parenthood clinic and see what they really do – who they SERVE.

      And last, please do not compare everything you do not agree with to Hitler. Hitler killed millions and millions of people – and unless one of those people was one of your relatives, maybe you should not just throw that kinds of stuff around. it is really inconsiderate and hostile and nasty of you. It is not a joke.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:28 pm |
  17. 0704American

    Those who are against universal healthcare today will be for it once they no longer have healthcare coverage.
    Those who have private healthcare will wish we had universal healthcare when they get a medical bill they can not afford to pay.

    June 27, 2012 at 9:01 pm |
    • Kat

      Good post, however empathy is not a typical trait of the typical american. Yes, I'm american.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:11 pm |
    • Dorchadas

      That's pretty much it. Yes, the majority of people are happy with their healthcare–because they've never had to actually use it.

      Over half of all bankruptcies in America are caused by medical expenses, and in over half of those bankruptcies, the people HAD INSURANCE when they got sick. Except whoops, they found out that the insurance company was happy to take their money and not so happy to spend it...

      June 27, 2012 at 9:14 pm |
  18. fire0bama

    Should we support a law that was developed and approved in the following dirty manner:

    "Let's pass the law so we can know what's in it." – Nancy Pelosi

    June 27, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
    • Kevin

      Your name and your reference to Pelosi tells me that you're not one with a legitimate objection to some component of Obamacare. Obama could cure cancer and you'd still find something to whine about. You just hate Obama. For reasons that are probably not politically correct. Most likely something darker.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:37 pm |
  19. Hu Phart Ngau

    When he takes this message to churches, some shut their doors... [John Blake, CNN]

    It simply underscores the true integrity of far too many churches. Pastors with big cars, big rings, and big hair, are about MONEY, not people. Robert Tilton sets the model.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
    • Mei

      Most Christian churches who oppose Obamacare are upset over the abortion clause. Taxpayers, especially Christians, should not be forced to pay for abortion which is evil and immoral. Science teaches us that life begins at conception. If you don't believe it, look up the science of reproduction. National healthcare can become real if Obama gives up supporting Planned Parenthood which makes 90% of its profit from abortion. That is really sick. Hitler would be very proud of that.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:05 pm |
    • J

      @Mei: Comparing universal healthcare to the actions of Hitler pretty much invalidates anything else you have to say. If you can't form an intelligent argument without resorting to outright falsehoods and hyperbole, do us all a favor and keep out of the conversations of informed and intelligent adults. You belong over at the kid's table.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:09 pm |
  20. Loki

    Who cares. Blame the hospitals for charging too much. Blame the laws that say we have to give healthcare to gang bangers criminals. Blame people for being to fat, drinking too much and smoking cigarettes. I have no interest in giving any money to these people.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
    • evensteven

      I have no desire to give any money to our military to go kill people . . .

      June 27, 2012 at 9:03 pm |
    • Loki

      Then don't send money to the military. I personally would like to stop paying my school tax. My kids go to private school.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:11 pm |
    • Kat

      Sorry, but there's millions of americans who need help. We don't care about what you want anymore, it's already far too long in coming.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:13 pm |
    • Leslie Song

      God help you when you become old, ill, vulnerable. And you will – because everybody gets old one day, and cancer strikes people down in the prime of life with no warning. Pray you do not meet anybody as vicious as yourself on that day, when it comes. Pray that your 'health insurance' company decides to be humane that day, when you get sick, instead of just cutting you off – as they often do, leaving you with the option of either dying, or going bankrupt to get help.

      What you don't understand, since you do not care about people who are different from yourself – though you do not know them – is that when vast populations near you are without health care, as they ARE, they will get sick. And guess what – so will you. It is called PUBLIC HEALTH for a reason. You cannot expect to preserve your own health if vast numbers of your neighbors cannot. So, if you have no heart to care about some sick kid who is poor – and yes, the majority of America's poor are children, then think about your own kids and yourself. If the public is sick – you will be too. It benefits YOU and everybody else, when ALL have access to health care. Furthermore – you would not be 'giving money to those people.' It does not work that way.

      Good luck to you, may you never get old or sick in America. May you meet people who are kinder than yourself.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:13 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.