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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. panorain

    I went to see a doctor years ago in NYC because I bruised my heel. $400 later for one visit I learned to take ibuprofin to reduce the inflamation and to soak the foot in ice water to reduce the swelling. All for 15 minutes of the doctor's time. Great living for them. And if they get paid $1500 for each hour of examination time then it is too expensive for the govt tax burden to pay. We could spend over 50% of our GNP on health care to less than 10% of the people and still not have enough money to pay for everything that people want and say they need.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:38 pm |
    • hmm

      I agree the prices are ridiculous...but have you ever noticed they charge insurance companies a lot less than what they charge you if you are paying out-of-pocket? If everyone has insurance, the prices should go down. and if they don't, I believe someone will have something to say about that!

      June 27, 2012 at 11:11 pm |
    • me

      Its not so much the doctor – its the whole system. The hospitals are gleaming businesses of gold. D14 went for acute stomach issue – $3000 at one ER then sent to another hospital for another $3000 hit. For a stomach bug! Heck at that point I feel bad for the insurance company paying that obscene amount. That is completely out of hand.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:22 pm |
  2. Peace Now

    How many of you who are against the individual mandate know that the mandate concept was actually introduced by Republicans/conservatives in the first place? Do you feel like a hypocrite yet?

    June 27, 2012 at 10:37 pm |
  3. Mikey

    The current health care must change. I am uninsured if I have to go to the hospital it would cost about 10 thousand a day. The insurance companies would pay doctors about 2thousand a day and they would take it but poor me would be stuck paying the ten thousand. If I am uninsured at least give me the same break as the insurance companies get. Doctors should accept my 2 thousand is worth just as much as their two thousand.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:36 pm |
  4. bgg1175

    The System we have can't be fixed. There are those who dont want it changed out of greed and the republicans are their pawns.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:36 pm |
  5. Lori

    while I agree that there needs to be heath care reform. I don't agree that it should be forced on people who prefer alternatives. I also hate the idea of doctors having to make choices about who deserves what kind of care based of their age or whatever other stipulations the Obama admin can dream up.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:36 pm |
    • sybaris

      You need to quit reading the emails and do some research.

      Insurance companies already make healthcare decisions based on age.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:43 pm |
    • hmm

      Lori...have you actually read the bill?
      You realize it's not feasible unless *everyone* pays into it, right? You'd rather a for-profit corporation was in charge of your health?

      June 27, 2012 at 11:14 pm |
  6. cdub

    Wow, by mentioning jesus giving "universal healthcare", they have unintentionally silenced a portion of Obama republican critics.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:36 pm |
  7. Gadflie

    We pay more for healthcare than any other industrialized country. We do not get the best healthcare. Something's wrong with this.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:35 pm |
  8. MennoKnight

    I fully agree with Wendell Potter, this is a matter of Faith.
    In Canada the founders of Universal Health Care were Baptist, Mennonite, Anglican, United and Catholic Clergy. The one who headed it all was an Evangelical Baptist Minister who was bestowed by Canadians as the "Greatest Canadian" to ever live.

    I know many clergy who would agree with this in America but are to afraid to stand up and preach what the Bible says on Health Care.
    Amen Brother. Amen

    From a Born Again Mennonite Christian.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:35 pm |
    • Emma in Baltimore

      You are so right 🙂

      June 27, 2012 at 10:52 pm |
  9. Mark

    Well Mr. Potter, Jesus did not stand up and demand that the Romans should pay for everyone's healthcare.
    He had the power to do that, but instead led by example and provided by his own power.
    Jesus said that the poor will always be with us.
    He said that because God does not choose to make everyone rich.
    Some people want to go against God, try to make everyone rich by making someone else pay for it.
    Potter can help all the people he wants.
    Demanding that others should pay for his compassion is not God's teaching.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:35 pm |
    • Emma in Baltimore

      You are one warped puppy, aren't you?

      June 27, 2012 at 10:37 pm |
    • MennoKnight

      So why in Canada and England was it the Born Again Christians led the charge 50 years ago to bring in Universal Health Care?

      Are you so greedy that you don't want to take care of your brother? The current system is not only broken it is SINFUL!

      June 27, 2012 at 10:37 pm |
    • jamie

      whatever circular logic you need to sleep at nite, i guess.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:48 pm |
    • Medical Student in the South

      To respond to every commenter who disagrees with health reform b/c they feel it is unfair that they should pay for somebody else's care – do you not all realize that you are already paying for the uninsured when they finally do seek the expensive emergency care (untreated diabetes and high blood pressure lead to strokes, heart attacks, and other nasty expensive things) that could have been prevented from being insured for primary care in the first place? I assure you all that taxes and insurance premiums would be lower if we lived in a nation where more people are insured.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:48 pm |
    • David

      Ever heard of the parable of the Good Samaritan? He found someone in distress, and paid for his health care.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:50 pm |
    • The Bird Is The Word

      Mark: Jesus led by example?!? What example? I, for one, cannot perfom miracles. "Led by example". What a maroon.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:18 pm |
    • hmm

      Well, unfortunately, MARK, I don't think most of us are capable of performing miracles and curing people of leprosy or whathaveyou. Your comment makes no sense. Hey, I know! Let's all just skip going to dr's altogether! Just sit home and try to cure yourself! And if you can't? Well, tough luck, says Jesus.
      If Jesus wanted the poor to remain poor, why did he supposedly multiply the fishes and loaves to feed them?
      Frankly, I can't even believe someone is trying to rationalize his greed and inhumanity by twisting the stories of a man who probably didn't even exist until they become almost unrecognizable. Just admit it: you just don't care about people. and that's sad. I'm Agnostic and apparently have more empathy and compassion than you!

      June 27, 2012 at 11:19 pm |
  10. Billy Whyde

    This story needs correction! . To some degree this story implies that " County Fairgrounds in Virginia in July 2007" was where this took place. I am sure that no one was treated at the " County Fairgrounds in Virginia in July 2007" unless it was a first aid station like any other fair grounds. I would doubt very much that the Wise County Department of Health would have allowed such a thing to happen and If I were the head of the Wise County Department of Health I be seeing an attorney to sue on this story.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:35 pm |
  11. Richard

    Holy Cow ! What a piece of crap story this is ! Medicine -gold-lined silverware – animal stalls ??? – Jesus – Southern Baptists – mud in an open field ! Couldn't you have thrown in a story of a one-armed baby crawling on the ground to reach the doctors ?? By the way, Jesus did not collect money from the general population to pay for the health care he provided ! This piece of trash is blatant propaganda to gain favor for the government – run health care program. Unreal !

    June 27, 2012 at 10:34 pm |
  12. robkoz

    Look at the fat slob in the wheelchair on oxygen. Smoker, eats fatty foods, no exercise. Yet all the libtards think that everyone should pay for these people's medical. No thanks. You reap what you sow.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:34 pm |
    • John

      don't you see how you embarrass conservatives with stupid comments like that. People will think all conservatives are as dumb and uneducated as you are. (P.S. There are many medical conditions that cause obesity; it is not just overeating. But then you wouldn't know that, would you.)

      June 27, 2012 at 10:41 pm |
    • jamie

      you have no idea what kind of pre-existing this person may have. perhaps they were born in wheelchair or had stunted development.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:43 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      @John

      Shhhh! Facts and reason are like deadly allergies to people like robkoz.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:43 pm |
    • Emma in Baltimore

      "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it." There's a reason why social services exist - including our sanitation departments. We don't need futuristic fiction like "The Hunger Games" to show us the potential future we may face. We already lived it during the turn of the 20th century. When Upton Sinclair wrote "The Jungle," he was trying to open people's eyes to their present-day surroundings - and the rich didn't like playing for changes then either. But now that life has improved, many have forgotten history ... and want to go back. "Be careful what you wish for ..."

      June 27, 2012 at 10:50 pm |
  13. Jason

    Wow, thanks for that balanced and unbiased article CNN. I'm sure we'll see a similar point of view from the other side very soon, right? Oh yeah, and I'm going to win the lottery too.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:33 pm |
    • Mark

      And just what would be the "other side"? This is reality, you fool.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:50 pm |
  14. Jon

    Americans have no RIGHT to free medical care. You don't have the right to medical care at all. You have the right to purchase or otherwise obtain medical care based on your own finances and willpower. You have the right to pursue happiness, not have it handed to you. I am 35 years old and have never been on welfare. I am from a family that was poor when I was a child and moved from impoverished, to lower middle class, to middle class. I work for a living and have never taken from anyone. I have always worked for anything I have. If I want something I don't have, I work harder and earn what I can toward that goal. I am disgusted when I see other grown men, and women too, at the social services building getting free services, checks, free cell phones, etc. when I work hard for everything and pay for such menial luxuries. I am sick of working so hard and having so much money taken from my paycheck every two weeks to pay for these slugs and their free services they feel they have a birth-right to. They think they have a birth-right for ME to work for THEM??? Lazy little, loser, slugs...all of them.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:32 pm |
    • Chris

      I grew up in a lower middle class home where my father worked his butt off to provide for his family. I worked hard went to college and have never taken any assistance. I currently have health care through my employer, which covers both me, my husband, and my daughter. Why do I cover my graduate college educated husband under my insurance? Because unless you have been living under a rock these days, there are no jobs! My husband and I worked hard, studied hard, and never asked for a hand out. But, now that my husband is fighting cancer, you are suggesting that because he doesn't have a job due to this horrible economy, he doesn't have a right to live! I hope you never have to experience what it is like to have to pay for cancer treatments to keep someone you love alive. When you get to the point when 10's of thousands of dollars decide whether someone lives or dies then you will understand how frustrated it makes many hard working Americans feel. Tired of paying for the lazy slugs huh? Well no offense, but when you find yourself in a situation where your wife, or God forbid child are on the brink of death and the only thing you can do to save them is hand over exorbitant amounts of money, you will change your tune just as quickly as anyone else. Count yourself lucky that you have never been in this situation and have a bit of compassion the people who have.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:58 pm |
    • Chris

      And I hope you pray every morning that you won't develop a chronic disease like multiple sclerosis or rheumatoid arthritis. Or that your kids don't have type 1 diabetes or a muscular dystrophy. Otherwise you would understand what "pre-existing condition" means, especially if you need to change jobs and your new employer's health insurance denies you coverage. You would understand not all uninsured are lazy.
      Also, people who work 3 jobs, and probably longer hours than you, may also not have health insurance because employers are not required to provide it.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:59 pm |
    • Sir

      Get sick and you will find out.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:02 pm |
  15. Geraldo

    death to obamacare

    June 27, 2012 at 10:32 pm |
    • hmm

      You need help.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:25 pm |
  16. David

    Illegals get free health care, and the socialist health care covers them still. Sick !

    June 27, 2012 at 10:31 pm |
    • hmm

      zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

      June 27, 2012 at 11:24 pm |
  17. whatever

    Americans overbreed, feed themselves and their kids garbage, smoke, drink, gamble, abuse themselves and their families and watch TV like it's their lifeline, and wouldn't leave the sofa and put down the Doritos to organize in against the corrupt insurance companies, lobbiests and politicians in true democratic fashion.
    Are the Health Profiteers evil? 100% yes.
    Are The People Innocent Victims? 100% No.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:31 pm |
    • Chris

      Wait a minute....I'd like some Doritos please.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:36 pm |
  18. Tim

    As a healthcare provider, I have never read such a piece of crap in my entire life. What you people out there do not realize with ObamaCare is just shoved 36 million into the most dysfunctional "biz" Wait till your doctor has to work on taking you off all your current meds to conform to the "more economical meds" approved by medicaid. Oh, and specialist consult Dream On Baby. Our system needs to be broke but putting people in a completely broken system is not the answer. Newsflash, ER's will just a full as they are now as there is nothing in this law that prevents it. Second Newsflash, we already have rationed care. i can not order what is in the best medically for my patients- No, I have to spend 30 min. on the phone to a person who has no medical training.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:31 pm |
    • Gadflie

      You claim to be a healthcare professional but don't realize that if everyone has insurance, then the incentive for people to use the emergency room (which HAS to treat them) for minor things will vanish for most of them.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:32 pm |
    • Mike

      Gadflie – I think the ER's will still be packed. Oregon had nearly universal healthcare under the Oregon Health Plan for many years, and the ER's there were still packed. The 30 minutes that Tim spends on the phone with some with little to no medical training will balloon to an hour as he has to listen to funky hold music and navigate those oh-so-wonderful voice-recognition phone systems because the American taxpayers will insist that we reduce the administrative costs of Medicare or Obamacare or whatever, so we will fire the American employees and outsource it to a call center in India for cost savings.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:43 pm |
    • hmm

      *yawn*
      The Boogie Men are out tonight in full force.
      I hope it passes.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:23 pm |
  19. David

    Well be be a sociaist nation tomm.? Time will tell.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:29 pm |
    • hmm

      Umm, no? You're purposefully confusing socialized medicine with socialism. Lame.
      How much do they pay you to post here?

      June 27, 2012 at 11:22 pm |
  20. Chris

    Obamacare did NOT address the problem. We never had a health care availability problem in this country. EVERYONE is admitted and treated regardless of insurance or no insurance. That was the law before and is now The problem is COST. When will we address that? Never? As usual the Dems outsmarted the republicans. SUCKERS

    June 27, 2012 at 10:28 pm |
    • Gadflie

      This obviously did address cost. The place where everyone is admitted is emergency rooms. And, well, they are the most expensive place to get treated. But, if they have insurance, they don't have to rely on emergency rooms.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:34 pm |
    • Mike

      Chris – I agree that cost is the problem – hence my previous posts on the irrational costs I see. But everyone is not necessarily admitted and treated regardless of insurance or no insurance. The law you are referring to is called EMTALA – the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act. That law requires hospitals who accept Medicare to evaluate and stabilize patients regardless of insurance. They don't have to cure you – just keep you from dying or losing significant function. Once they've done that they can discharge you – the so-called "treat-and-street" approach.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:37 pm |
    • jrm03063

      You can no more address cost of health care ahead of access – than you can to go to a restaurant and pay the check independently of the contents of your order. Saying "cost first" is really a sleezy way of saying that you're ok with lots of folks dying and suffering needlessly.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:41 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.