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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. 2020

    The most tragic part is people PRETEND they didn't see it, didn't hear it. Denied the same Americans living in the same country, same community as you. the living and the death are no different. I always wonder how a christian can say it is them, not me. Where is the human conscience? Where is the heart?

    June 27, 2012 at 11:09 pm |
  2. Mary

    Great article...! God Bless him and others like him....!!!

    June 27, 2012 at 11:08 pm |
  3. onthisday

    did you ask your doctor if s/he supports a non-profit universal single payer health care?

    if s/he doesn't, dump the greedy butcher and find a real doctor whose top priority is your health!

    June 27, 2012 at 11:07 pm |
  4. Dr. Kildare

    The biggest myth being perpetrated is that healthcare will all of a sudden become "free". Nothing is further from the truth.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:07 pm |
  5. countrydude

    My Health Insurance with Blue Cross Blue Shield is be cancel in 3 days. I'm recovering from a heart, and been told I need a pacemake ASAP! Now, I cannot afford it, and I do not qualify for ANY gov. assistant. What's bad, I was told enjoy my days and do the best I can. After years paying into the system, I"m told no. I don't want a handout, just what I've paid into it. I strongly feel what has been said.....and I'm sorry to repeat it, God Damn America!!! You can give free health to illegals, food stamps, and medicaid, but I, a single man, cannot get any assistance. Nothing is going to be done, for Insurance companies have gotten Congress by the balls.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:04 pm |
    • Bundy

      I see people repeating over and over that illegals get free health care, but I suspect you are just repeating Fox News and Republican propaganda. I mean, come on, it defies logic that I can't get health care as an American Citizen without insurance, but IF only I was an illegal alien all my problems would be solved and I'd get free health care.

      What do you think the hospitals do? Oh, you are a citizen, no health care for you, go die on the street. But we'll gladly care for illegal aliens. Gimme a break, if you believe that then I have a bridge I want to sell you.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:19 pm |
  6. Mark

    Exactly right about the good Samaritan.
    He did it on his own.
    Did not try to make other people pay for it.
    Neither did Jesus.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:02 pm |
  7. Jamal

    Regardless of your political leanings, the current health care situation is unsustainable. The cost is only going up(we're talking billions and trillions now) and, with the current situation of the global economy, more people are falling in the category that everyone is debating about their worthiness of having a decent health coverage; the uninsured.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:01 pm |
  8. nsam

    Like Mr. Potter say Health care is a moral issue. The tragic hypocracy in this case is that those very republicans who talk big about religion, the rights of the unborn has no compassion for fellow countrymen and even are willing to let sick die instead of helping them. They say they believe in a God but they do totally opposite what a God would want them to do. Anyone who oppose a universal healthcare system which helps each other when they get sick is not a true believer of God. They are faking themselves with utter ignorance. Putting a lable saying one is a Gods believer does not make them that, they must learn to walk the path of compassion that Jesus showed them every moment of his life. Churches and christianity has been so commercialized, pastors, preachers mostly work for keep power and their position but not really to walk the path laid in those religious texts. That is the plain truth even one do not want to believe it. Many Americans who call themselves religious are living in a web of lies and deceptions. Only thing I could say to them if I take their own vocabulary is that "may God have mercy on them for the cruelty and show for those who need help".

    June 27, 2012 at 11:01 pm |
    • Chris

      Considering that the majority of pastors on the US are bi-vocational and need secondary jobs to make ends meet, and that the majority of pastors do not themselves have health insurance because their churches cannot afford it, your assessment is inaccurate and misguided. as one of those pastors whose job pays only part time and does not provide health insurance, I would love to get insurance. But I cannot in good conscience place a vote to provide that for me by forcing someone else to foot the bill for it. I have chosen a profession that doesn't pay as well as I would like. That was my choice. And I will not vote to have the government take by force what someone else has earned for my own benefit. It amounts to legalized theft where the majority can vote to raid the coffers of the minority and I will neither condone it or support it.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:21 pm |
  9. Paolo

    Mr. Wendell Potter lived through the ethical dilemma and made the right choice and set an example of what humanity is all about. Greed and stupidity turned good&evil onto winers&losers, turned people into preys and the earth from a Temple into a suicidal market. This Man shows us otherwise and stood high for his fellow human-beings. You make us all proud, Mr. Potter. Don't let the courtesans of the corporate crime tell you otherwise.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:01 pm |
  10. Steve Phillippo

    SORT OF LIKE SOMEONE I KNOW THAT HAS TO ORDER ANTIBIOTICS FROM A PET SUPPLY STORE.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:59 pm |
  11. slickteigkcmo

    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.”
    "I have preached till I'm blue in the face", what insurance executives and INSURANCE COMPANIES ARE LIKE, because I worked for them and now I work in healthcare, after also working in state public assistance jobs.....THEY ARE EVIL, many of them< they are the OBSCENELY RICH of America that has scared us, put fear and paranoia into our hearts and brains, that we can't live without them, BS, we can and should!!!!!!!! THEY ARE ONLY ABOUT THEIR PERSONAL WEALTH, that is why wthey are so opposed to any other type of healthcare, they built the only system we know, built it and will fight for it , till death..... this is the truth, just listen to this other employee , the secret is out, they run our worlds, our lives, everything!!!! Americans, wake the heck up!!!!!! We can , still will get medical treatment, healthcare, without the system we know, CHANGE CAN BE A GOOD THING!!!!!! A necessary thing!!!! Too many AMERICANS, many working poor and their children too, suffer and don't get treated well medically anyway, OBAMA IS TRYING to close the gap, make it more ethical, kinder for ALL AMERICANS, only because they stand to lose their golden calves, do they go after him-OBAMA, with their propaganda, he cares about ALL of us, always has according to his actions and words, ....Healthcare must be for all, we all deserve, need to be well, every single last man, woman and child, it's not a luxury boat, house , car, vacation, summer home, winter home, diamonds, planes, etc. IT IS HEALTHCARE a fundamental need, like food, clothing, shelter, in a moral America, we'd all be taken care of , taught how to have healthier lives, have treatment for random illnesses. Medical professionals, I pray you aren't using your God given brains, talents JUST FOR MONEY????!!!! if so , may you lose your abilities, they are gifts from God to take care of humankind, gifts, not your "own talent" just to benefit you!!!!!!! That thinking is so wrong!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! If you don't share the knowledge and talent God gave you, look out...... you will answer for that thinking, hoarding, the shame will be on you!!!!!! Wake up, see how and why we need healthcare for everyone in American, then we will see who appreciates their talent and is a moral doctor, nurse etc, as they will take care of people out of love, and still get paid a fair income too :))))))) Trust that this is the "correct" course to follow, it is , those who only want money, we don't want them treating us anyway!!!!!!!! They would just equate us with $$$$$$ signs, not as patients who need care.God bless all of us!!!!!

    June 27, 2012 at 10:59 pm |
    • CIGNA IS CRIMINAL

      CIGNA and the rest of these GIANT Health "Plan" /Insurance Companies are criminal. There is a systematic method that they use to intentionally turn down your authorizations for treatment, and deny your claims. If these Health Plan criminal giants do not reach their revenue/profit goals for the month, they will deny your claim, or intentionally post pone responding to it until the next quarter. And it's similar for the requests for authorization for surgeries etc. Again if they haven't met their profit goals they will deny your request, and tell you that it's going before the medical review board for necessity, resulting in the medical review board meetings being postponed to the next quarter as well. It's about making ridiculous amounts of money from each company's health plan premium payments...that are deducted from your paycheck. Yes, the Executives own mansions, islands, yachts etc., and you're being denied care. It's the Bernie Madoff Method (BMM Health Plan). The Health Plan companies need an ENEMA! These criminals need to go to prison and be assigned cell mates who are murderers. This CIGNA Executive had to go see patients in animal stalls to realize that his CIGNA company is corrupts. All he had to do is listen to the consultants who have been there and vowed to never practice in Health Plan industry again because of this!

      June 27, 2012 at 11:11 pm |
  12. t party

    Too much frijoles and tortilla for that fat mesican

    June 27, 2012 at 10:59 pm |
  13. bannister

    The people in that picture probably aren't even Americans.

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

      You just don't get it, do you? Go to your local food banks and ask those people needing food how many of them have health insurance.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:10 pm |
  14. Chris

    Pre Obamacare $750/month. Post Obamacare $1206/month and rising. Fix the cost man!

    June 27, 2012 at 10:57 pm |
  15. Steve

    It would have been nice if Potter had pointed out that requiring all Americans to spend their money on these very same for-profit insurance companies isn't exactly going to fix the problem.

    What the US needs is health care reform. What we got was health insurance reform, and we paid for it with corporate welfare.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:57 pm |
    • Peter

      You got it right, brother!!! ObamaCare tries to fix price, but drives up cost. We tend to equate insurance with care and that is a fallacy.

      If we reduce the cost of care, rather than try to fiddle with the price of insurance, we can actually solve the problem. Not sure the GOP has the right answer, but I know Obama does not...

      June 27, 2012 at 11:11 pm |
    • U.S. Citizen

      Medicare for All!

      June 27, 2012 at 11:14 pm |
  16. Engineer's daughter

    Wendell Potter
    Terrific, Great! There are real people out there. Finding your true identify behind that ego image is a huge growth step. And it is a greatly powerful spiritual growth. I applaud you for you bravery and compassion.

    Now to get EVERY person in the pharmaceutical industry against the affordable care act, and the government officials to go to ANY free clinic for a few days. I see wonderful people, trying to work hard (sometimes of 12 hr per day) with chronic, painful but treatable problems having no where else to go. The doctors I do the transcriptions for are great, doing as much as they can with their limited resources. Luckily there are a number of other doctors of the same mind.
    I don't see why it is so hard to figure it out. Healthy people make more money, therefore more taxes are generated. We also need more dentists and psychological help as well as support groups. Not everything can be treated with a pill.
    After all, the greatest cause of death is medical errors or drug interactions.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:57 pm |
  17. Holly

    ...millions upn millions upon millions of illegals don't have this problem because American's are footing the bill. And of course this effects the bottom line. get rid of the illegals get rid of the high cost Americans pay. simple. ...look up NumbersUSA... register and then take action

    June 27, 2012 at 10:56 pm |
  18. A common Sense American named Tommy

    It's amazing how many people are convinced that "Obamacare" is destroying the country through socialist schemes....yet it doesn't even begin until 2014.

    Even more amazing.....people honestly think they aren't already paying for other people's health care....

    Staggers the mind...

    June 27, 2012 at 10:55 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      *Vader voice*

      The Kool-Aid is strong within them.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:58 pm |
  19. M Marie

    Thank you for publishing this article. I think it's too late for the USA due to fiscal corruption at highest levels of government.

    Still it is reassuring to know that most Europeans have a strong, excellent and inexpensive medical safety net much needed in the global recession which grows deeper.
    Peace pays large dividends to those countries who place quality of life ahead of
    power and greed.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:54 pm |
  20. jamie

    I have a condition that completely precludes me from the private insurance market at the ripe old age of 28. I am hoping and praying that Obamacare will stay so that I can pursue my chosen profession, otherwise I will need to work for a company who can cover me, which limits my contribution to the economy so that I cannot start a small business with the same ease as someone without my diagnosis. Ironically, had I not sought diagnosis, I would be able to be covered but a significantly higher risk to the health companies if left untreated. It makes no sense, this system.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:52 pm |
    • John Smith

      You are a good example of people who fall through the cracks and either get close to or even have to go on disability and become a drain on public money. Obamacare will help more people be more productive and in the end I think it will create a stronger economy through a healthier society.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:57 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.