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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. mikzyspitlik

    This is good, everyone needs this kind of moment, and there is nothing wrong with having a society with more compassion. I think sometimes people simply look at numbers on a page or blur over large groups of people and don't pay attention to the individuals that are affected by these things. They're not lazy, stupid people, just people that happened to have a bit of bad luck in their lives.

    June 27, 2012 at 9:29 pm |
  2. Say what?

    Who decides how much doctors get paid?

    June 27, 2012 at 9:29 pm |
  3. DaveinIL

    Another sob story to justify upending the US healthcare system because, to paraphrase OWS, the 1% that don't have medical insurance. The organized free clinic for these people was the right step to take rather than put together a jumble of medical requirements to throw at the insurance companies, bribe senators to pass it and shove the nation deeper in debt.

    June 27, 2012 at 9:29 pm |
    • Bammer 1107

      I think you have your head on backwards.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:53 pm |
  4. BobFromPA

    This is extremely interesting because you have an insider exposing what the REAL issue with health care is. Mixing "Profits" and health care in the same definition. It still amazes me how un-Christian most of these right wing so called Christians are. They don't really have any basic morals, they just think if they believe they will be redeemed. BTW I do not consider myself Christian, but I do believe in human dignity as a right for all of us and that keeping everyone healthy is good for the long term survival of our society and is the RIGHT thing to do. We should be ashamed!

    June 27, 2012 at 9:28 pm |
    • DaveinIL

      Now, Bob, you're just clinging to your guns and religion.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:32 pm |
    • BobFromPA

      DaveinIL I am NOT a Christian.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:34 pm |
    • Say what?

      Why should we? On what moral authority? Cuz it makes you feel better? I'm not ashamed someone else can't support themselves. Suck it up, toughen up, or stop wasting this planet's resources.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:36 pm |
    • REALpatriot

      Bob, you many not be religious, but you have more Christian principles than most of the far right funny farm party.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:15 pm |
  5. adrian

    all this going on in the world yet people are so dumb and blind to watch the kardashians make a fool out of them making millions!! artist making millions with no talent!! america is going down hill people and we are all to blame in the end!! lets not point fingers

    June 27, 2012 at 9:27 pm |
  6. Say what?

    Jesus never told Pilate to heal the sick.

    June 27, 2012 at 9:27 pm |
  7. Jenny

    Hey Faberm. Have you even considered that she is the untreated victim of a glandular problem? Or that because she is so poor the only food she can afford is unhealthy, but filling, carbohydrates and cheap crap food?. My daughter is a beautiful woman, a talented artist and musician, multi-lingual and a dedicated and loving health care provider. Yet, because she was overweight, she was constantly ignored at best, taunted at worst until we finally figured out the glandular malfunction. With regulating medication she is now "normal" and happy. Thank God she has the "luxury" of health insurance.

    June 27, 2012 at 9:26 pm |
  8. Kevin

    Anyone who thinks we don't need health care reform in this country is delusional. Opponents of Obamacare have nothing to offer. This is a step long overdue. For all the talking heads that say that Obama is "socialist" and trying to impose "socialized medicine" on us unsuspecting Americans, I invite you to give up your Medicare subsidies and return any social security money you may be receiving. Put your money where your flytrap is.

    June 27, 2012 at 9:26 pm |
  9. Eli

    To J7 – You said it best! THANKS

    June 27, 2012 at 9:25 pm |
  10. Bishop Hairy Palms

    The single biggest accomplishment of the modern conservative movement has been to convince millions of weak minded individuals that selfishness, greed, and contempt for the less fortunate, are good Christian values.

    June 27, 2012 at 9:25 pm |
    • Eli

      I believe we need an AMEN here.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:26 pm |
    • Eli

      Amen

      June 27, 2012 at 9:30 pm |
    • REALpatriot

      AMEN and A-MEN!!!

      June 27, 2012 at 10:17 pm |
  11. clem

    Repubs don't care; they did NOTHING for 8 years bush was president...NOTHING, they don't care' didn't then, don't now...don't trust them OBAMA CARES ABOUT HEALTH CARE PROBLEMS

    June 27, 2012 at 9:25 pm |
    • Bishop Hairy Palms

      Republicans did do something.

      For the last 40 years Republicans have fought against and defeated every attempt at health care reform, even as prices have skyrocketed and quality of care has plummeted.

      The GOP is fighting for our right to pay more and get less.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:28 pm |
    • hellonews

      obama doesn't care about healthcare problems...he cares about convincing the masses to re-elect him...you go to a single payer system...and all of us doctors will flee the country b/c we can't afford to pay back our student loans...a single payer system looks like Medicare reimbursing at 20%...doctors losing even more money than they already are and...then where is your healthcare

      June 27, 2012 at 9:33 pm |
    • Yeah ok kool aid man

      Oman only cares about votes. Why do you think he waited until an election year to allow openly gay people in the military, all ow gays to marry one month, then the next month just happen to say "Hey btw instead of wedding gifts, contribute to my campaign and show all your friends" The guy is the biggest crock of shhhit going. Another 4 years and you may as well start speaking chinese because they will own you and everything else here too.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:35 pm |
    • Peace Now

      Yup, Obama is the first politician ever to care about getting re-elected. Why is that the sin you're focusing on and not the fact that GOP politicians have been paid off for decades by big corporations to make sure they all get richer off the backs of the middle and poor classes?

      You have to stop thinking that poor people are choosing to be poor and start realizing that their choices are far more limited than anyone with means. All you right wingers think that those without jobs want to be that way. None of you realize that the policies in place to support the rich are the same ones that stifle opportunities for everyone else. There is no level playing field because the rich have no incentive to allow there to be one.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:11 pm |
    • REALpatriot

      Hellonews the doctor will go where??? All the advanced nations of the world have universal healthcare. Where would he go to get filthy rich, ROFL???

      June 27, 2012 at 10:20 pm |
  12. Jim

    I agree with the premise of making care affordable for all but, differ quite strenuously with Mr Potter's prescription. Jesus brought physical healing to others while He was walking the Earth but that wasn't the thrust nor aim of His ministry as that same New Testament declares (and Jesus declared). This isn't a matter of people wanting other people to die from preventable diseases and such, it is a debate about how best to get affordable care for the people.

    June 27, 2012 at 9:24 pm |
    • Majestic

      As long as "FOR PROFIT" health care exists, the United States of America will NEVER have "health care for all". Why on earth would ANY insurance company, hospital, doctor, etc agree to cut profits just to ensure 45,000 people don't DIE every year? The USA is a capitalist society – meaning "IF it's profitable, do it – if not, scrub it"

      June 27, 2012 at 9:34 pm |
    • Peace Now

      And the best way to get them affordable care is that everyone has the same access to it. Single payer healthcare is the only option. Healthcare is not a privilege, it's a basic human right.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:13 pm |
    • Richard

      Not affordable care, my friend, look at the health systems of all the industrialized countries of the world all of whom maintain a national health care system. It is simple the fact that it is morally wrong to profit from the illnesses of people. But if our country believe more in how you think, as compared to I, our country will continue to live with this exasperated health care system. American people must accept a change in culture to adapt to a National health care system. It is economically sound, with some sacrifices, but accessible by all people, black or white, Hispanic or Asian. Private insurance business would be allowed to continue to offer their services, a new market will appear that will require them. Let us see.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:18 pm |
  13. ATLmatt

    Sadly the United States is not the greatest country in the world.

    June 27, 2012 at 9:24 pm |
    • Jim

      And where praytell can we ship you to so you can live in the greatest country?

      June 27, 2012 at 9:25 pm |
    • Amalasan

      Jim: :Look up health by country, America is not number one, its not even in the top 10
      It is number THIRTY SEVEN, one rank up from ANGOLA of Africa
      Sorry to burst you misplaced nationalist bubble but America is not the best place to live
      Not even close.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:32 pm |
    • schwarzey

      Jim exemplifies why we are not the greatest. American exceptionalism is a myth.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:34 pm |
    • Yeah ok kool aid man

      I dont see you lining up to leave though do I??

      June 27, 2012 at 9:37 pm |
    • hellonews

      Amalasan...and look up where all the world's doctors want to train...AMERICA...those ranking are entirely bogus...those rankings put the VA healthcare system as one of the best in the country...have you ever worked at a VA?? then you'll realize how bogus those ratings are...the bottom line is that the US has 300+ million people and if you don't work and don't care, you don't eat...there are definitely people that fall through the cracks, but that is not the majority

      June 27, 2012 at 9:37 pm |
  14. DVMarie

    God bless you Wendell Potter. Your views are mine, and I am always saddened to see Christians against providing help for the poor and outcast. They should be always thinking "What would Jesus Do" – and, in their hearts, they know the answer to that.

    June 27, 2012 at 9:23 pm |
  15. AGrey

    One time when I had an HMO I went to the doctor's with chest pain. The doctor felt I had to go straight to the hospital to run more tests but we had to wait around to get the HMO to approve it that day. There was one hospital about 500 feet away and a few more private hospitals in the area, but what hospital would the HMO cover? County. So I was taken 35 minutes away to the County hospital with it's narrow gurney filled cinder block hallways (they didn't have enough rooms to treat people so they used the hallways) and wonderful urine scent. It was packed to the brim with people who did not have insurance (or had insurance like mine) and no other place to go because the private hospitals wouldn't treat them. A lot of people were there for things which never had to get so bad if they had access to basic medical care.

    June 27, 2012 at 9:23 pm |
  16. abbydelabbey

    It is pathetic that America, one of the richest nations in the world, does not have a national health care plan just like the other major industrialized nations..... We call ourselves a "Christian" nation yet we are governed more by Pharisees than Christians...

    June 27, 2012 at 9:23 pm |
    • Jim

      As a Christian, you're attempt to speak for the nation calling itself a "Christian nation" is laughable. The problem is that the healthcare systems round the world are worse than ours and that is why people flock here for care that cannot be received elsewhere.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:27 pm |
    • mark

      We are NOT the richest nation in the world.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:30 pm |
  17. Loffee

    Reminds me of Java the Hut

    June 27, 2012 at 9:23 pm |
    • mark

      Problem with this country, there are hundreds of thousands of Java the Huts that don't take personal responsibility and they will take down this country.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:36 pm |
  18. Mary Smith

    Not to mention that the insurance companies are salivating at the mouth over all the extra money they are going to get from
    the new health care laws. Are we really going to throw people in prison because they can't pay the mandatory fee? Did we really have to hire all those extra FBI agents to catch the criminals? There is always two sides to every story...

    June 27, 2012 at 9:22 pm |
    • BRUCE

      she could lose a few pounds

      June 27, 2012 at 9:23 pm |
  19. Tom

    Considering our country is one of the most developed, we have one of the worst health care system in the world.

    June 27, 2012 at 9:21 pm |
    • Mary Smith

      I have done relief work all over the world and this is a big fat lie.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:22 pm |
    • DVMarie

      Our health care is top notch – it's just that too many cannot afford it.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:25 pm |
    • Jim

      Thank you Mary. It is nice to see someone who actually has experience with care around the world to make a statement instead of hearing from people with big hearts but no knowledge.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:28 pm |
    • JustSaying2U

      Mary Smith, this is the truth. For what the average American pays for healthcare, via insurance or actual hospital charges, we pay more for less than any and everyone else in the world. I've lived on 4 continents. Believe me...

      June 27, 2012 at 9:31 pm |
  20. Horatio

    what ever happened to the morality in this country. It's a damn shame when people that need help can"t get it mainly because of separation of classes. What may be good enough for you might not be good enough for those that can't help there situation due to no fault of their own.
    I think sometimes we forget about the things that really count.
    There's a big difference between a stake and a bologna sandwich. And, i'm here to say I been on both sides and its very humbling. Strange thing is we all don't know what or how our kids will turn out it could easily be them in the future. It's easy to say when you have it. A role reversal is need so you can understand. bet you change your minds then.

    June 27, 2012 at 9:21 pm |
    • mark

      Java the Hut says, whatever...I'm going to continue to sit on my A$$ and let someone else pay for my medical bills, food, housing and smokes.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:40 pm |
    • REALpatriot

      So true, Horatio!!

      June 27, 2012 at 10:29 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.