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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. msadr

    I think this fellow is misguided. If that law is not overturned, ALL Americans will be getting their healthcare in animal stalls. Furthermore, it's not the governments right to force people to be like Jesus.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:24 pm |
    • mboo3469

      Anyone actually know what happens with the health care bill in the next few years? It gives incentives to health care groups (called Accountable Care Organizations) to get better outcomes with lower cost. Think about that – an incentive to get better outcomes. Right now, if a hospital or health care provider does a great job for low cost, they make less money. That's not good for business. If the majority of the health care bill stands, Accountable Care Organizations will be looking for innovative ways to improve the quality of care, keep patient satisfaction high, AND SAVE MONEY. Without something like this, we continue to be paid for doing more, not getting better results.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:36 pm |
  2. harry

    it's true, healthcare is not affordable for everyone.
    taking more money from the middle class to distribute the cost is a temporary fix.
    costs will continue to rise and in 5 years we'll be in the same place we are today.
    the goal should be to REDUCE the cost of healthcare.
    but that wont happen because the people making the money in this industry, are the ones making the political decisions.
    and there's no way they are going to promote a pay cut as the "cure".

    June 27, 2012 at 11:24 pm |
  3. cflan63

    All you people, all you horrible, selfish people that don't want universal health care. You can actually read an article like this...people getting health care in animal stalls and then say too bad, not my problem! Who cares hownuniversal health care is managed...government or not. Pathetic, absolutely pathetic. You awful, selfish people. I am sorry we live in the same country. That our troops give their lives for your disgusting, selfish pathetic lives. Bite me.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:23 pm |
    • Wanderlust

      Yup. My thoughts exactly!

      June 27, 2012 at 11:30 pm |
    • Pragmatist

      It's easy to appeal to morals and say everything should be free especially when you don't have to pay for it. You have right to open your own checkbook if you feel so strongly.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:37 pm |
  4. VikasD

    The irony is that half of those in this bad situation will vote Republican. Amazing how they have convinced people to vote against their own interest. We will take away your healthcare, unemployment, reduce your wages and benefits – but vote for us, otherwise those dems will turn you gay and take away your guns!

    June 27, 2012 at 11:23 pm |
  5. PeterTO

    Nice to see a story about a Christian actually embracing Christian values for a change. When it comes to politics, it's usually "Let him die! Praise Jesus!"

    June 27, 2012 at 11:20 pm |
  6. jmka

    Wendell Potters of the world have good intentions but if they have their way we all will end up in that same line.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:20 pm |
    • Ekaterina Kaverina

      Y???

      June 27, 2012 at 11:25 pm |
  7. BG

    Our priorities as a nation are the military/industrial complex, not universal health care. Until we change our priorities, nothing will change. We have the money for health care but we spend it on wars, as that is our priority. As convovoluted and complex as the health care law is, I give credit to Obama for at least trying, albeit without any assistance or cooperation from the Republicans.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:19 pm |
    • Bill

      I would not use the term "with no assistance from republicans." Cooperation is a two way street. Obama and the Democrats did not want to listen to anything the Repubilicans had to say. The Republicans were not against health care, they were concerned about how to pay for the health care. Democrats have notoriously "spent" and then worried about how to pay for it. The current trend among "ODUMA DEMOCRATS" is tax the rich i.e., republicans. Everything on ODUMA's agenda is paid for by taxing the rich. Just how much can we tax these people? If the Democrats would consider clamping down on illegal immigration, just think how much money would be freed up to pay for health care? And besides, there would be fewer people with the illegals gone.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:28 pm |
  8. sayitlikeiseeit

    Wow!!

    June 27, 2012 at 11:18 pm |
  9. Reba

    There are millions of people - Americans –with no healthcare because of unemployment, denial due to pre-existing conditions, high cost of healthcare, low wages etc. Let's not use immigrants as the sole scapegoat to such a gigantic heathcare crisis. Single mothers, single fathers, parents with financial difficulties, children with dead parents being raised by family members - can attest to how hard it is to pay for health insurance and still try and make enough to pay there bills. Let's be fair about the blame game. The bottom line is insurance is costly be it car insurance, home insurance, health insurance. The only winners here are the Insurance companies. Pay 20 years of insurance – have an accident and your rate goes up. Can't afford health insurance – you suffer or you die. It only hits you hard when it happens to you or someone you love. I say everyone pay into the healthcare pot and everyone have good health for a better America. That's my opinion.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:17 pm |
    • Bill

      I agree with everything you say except, when you say "everyone" pays into the pot....that is where the problem lies. 48% of Americans do not pay any taxes, so how would they contribute to a health care pot? Unless we make health care like Social Security where there are no exemptions, the burden of payment again falls on the "rich."

      June 27, 2012 at 11:32 pm |
    • Timbre

      Wonderful post and I agree completely!

      June 27, 2012 at 11:34 pm |
  10. steven

    No one wants to talk about the real elephant in the room, the real high cost of health, salaries of doctors, healthcare executives, and insurance executives

    June 27, 2012 at 11:17 pm |
    • GozieBoy

      So your solution is for Obamacare to come in and regulate the doctors and other healthcare providers salaries to be lower? And who will then be our future providers? I've seen this in countries with socialized medicine, which I expect this buffoon has not, and the results can only be described as horrific. The problem is that the Dems have conditioned people to demand "free stuff" – that is, stuff paid by others. Go to Greece and see how that's working out.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:30 pm |
    • Jakk

      I did see below.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:32 pm |
    • Pragmatist

      Physician salaries have steadily declined and are not the cause for increased healthcare costs. I know because I am one. Healthcare is expensive because of the bureaucracy. Physician reimbursement represented only 8.6% of total health care expenditure or $216 billion of the 2.5 trillion spent. Your doctor is not the problem.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:47 pm |
  11. Mark

    The ER when she has a heart attack will be free regardless and paid for by taxpayers either through Obamacare or the local hospital. THis is extremely common for the tax payers to pickup the tab for her poor decisions no matter what. I can betcha she is already collecting SSI disability, etc. as are most folks that can get a doctor to write them a note.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:17 pm |
    • taffd

      You are a small arrogant little man. Many times people get brushed off with no treatment at all. I personally know of a wonderful man that went to the hospital with chest pains, only to be sent home with "heartburn" after telling them he had no insurance. They found him dead on his living room floor the next morning. So there's one man you didn't have to pay for with your precious taxes. As long as you have yours-–God bless you–he only loves the rich

      June 27, 2012 at 11:29 pm |
    • GozieBoy

      taffd: You have the logic of a door knob. If we move to a socialized medical regime, I can guarantee you that you will see examples of your "wonderful man" x 1000. Do yo not know about the multi-year waiting time for services in countries with socialized care? Do you not know that they discriminate severely who will even get care and who will not ("death panels"). If you are overweight, sorry – go home and die! A smoker? Geddouttahere! Over 65? Sorry, you're on the bottom of the list, and certainly no transplants for you! taffd, you are quite ignorant and brainwashed by your loony lib masters...

      June 27, 2012 at 11:36 pm |
  12. David

    We will know tomm. if we have become a socialist nation. Goodbye freedoms.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:16 pm |
    • taffd

      I visited the former Soviet Union three times. You have no idea what socialism is–it's just a scary word the far right keeps shoving down your throat. God, I wish people would read!

      June 27, 2012 at 11:32 pm |
    • GozieBoy

      @taffd: You are right, if people went to the FSU (like I did on many occasions), they would see long lines at the bakery to fight over one or two loaves of stale bread. I knew many highly qualified doctors who could not begin to make a living as a physician, and therefore become security guards or menial laborers to eke out a living. When President Aliyev needed heart work, Houston's Dr. Debakey was dispatched to see him, and later he came over to the Mayo clinic. taffd, you are quite ignorant and brainwashed by your loony lib masters...

      June 27, 2012 at 11:43 pm |
  13. singlemom.

    God help us all, being on welfare is the worst example we can teach our kids. It's time to say "no" get a job.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:16 pm |
  14. some dude

    I'm an American so I don't care.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:16 pm |
  15. PRISM 1234

    What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his own soul?
    This man has found his treasure, and is much more worth then any position or wealth this world could give him! Praise be to God! Jesus said "you shall know them by their fruits... and "my sheep hears my voice, and they will follow me"
    Amen!

    June 27, 2012 at 11:14 pm |
  16. volitionx

    Well, it's a FREE clinic, so what are they complaining about? I bet some are illegals anyway, and in the end, YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR, and they pay, what, NOTHING? So there you go. Take care of your health and don't do all of the bad things we always told you not to do for your entire life!

    June 27, 2012 at 11:13 pm |
    • Listen2Others

      I think it is a shame that opinions like this, based on knee-jerk reactions and a lack of knowledge about the health-care industry, are rampant. As they say, "It's not real until it happens to you." Most people are one pink slip away from losing health insurance. COBRA is basically not affordable, and people who work hard, 40 hours or more a week, are not able to get health care. You might want to read a bit before you blast those whose plight you clearly do not understand or show compassion for.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:22 pm |
    • Steven

      Sure, whatever helps you sleep at night buddy... One day, I can only hope that something happens to you or someone in your family; and you or someone you care about winds up in their situation.. Only then will you see the disgusting person that you really are.. Have a nice day.. 🙂

      June 27, 2012 at 11:28 pm |
    • Cruzader

      I was preparing to give you a piece of my mind, but the effort is worthless when there is no brain and just empty space.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:30 pm |
    • laurie bates

      you have no heart or soul. I hope you and your familyl never need help

      June 27, 2012 at 11:36 pm |
  17. JL

    If I were Romney I’d tell everyone what they wanted to hear and then once elected I’d sell off America in little pieces cause it’s worth more that way!

    June 27, 2012 at 11:13 pm |
  18. David

    It is funny reading the comments on how Obamacare is a step in the right direction. I work with physicians and see the damage that has already been done by this 2700+ page monstrosity. If it is upheld, you will see a large number of physicians over 50 retire (because they can) and lots and lots of employers dump their employees into the government pool since the fines are cheaper than the cost and "Cadillac Tax". Rationing has already started, especially in Cardiology where HHS has reduced reimbursements and is not paying for certain procedures. You can stick your head in the sand and criticize people who have a different opinion than you with all sorts of flippant remarks that make you feel smart but that won't change the fact that if this stays, we and I mean We the People are screwed.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:12 pm |
    • SAF

      You are out of your mind. The Planet you think you live on is in your dreams. Let's just keep doing what we are doing, things will just turn out dandy? That little chump change the secret RNC is paying out to you to do their dirty work will not pay for your care when you need. Oh, oh, that’s right somehow you are going to be independently wealth at some point also … oh, yeah what’s the name of that Planet you live on again … ?

      Just sad …

      June 27, 2012 at 11:33 pm |
    • VikasD

      The healthcare plan is a Republican plan – it was Bob Dole's platform in 1995 was embraced by Republicans since then. It won't do any of those things you mention. It will cover millions of uninsured and reduce costs. The only reason conservatives are against it is that is proposed by Obama. And I am myself a faculty in a Medical School, so I am close to the situation.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:34 pm |
    • OhioGP

      David, nice job throwing in lines like HHS, but you have no idea what you are talking about. Wake up from your right-wing mania and look at truth for once. You have no problem with millions losing their insurance every year, or insurance companies not covering procedures or dropping coverage when people need it most? How can you stand up for these theives? You whine about "the government" taking your money, but are perfectly fine with health insurance companies robbing us all. God forbid they actually cover something. You probably love handouts to big insurance like Medicare (dis) Advantage too. You poor fool. I only wish I could be there when you get sick, and find out your Insurance company you love has decided you're not worth it. I know many caring physicians who volunteer- perhaps one could help you after you get through the long line. Good luck. Please read. You know not what you are doing.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:59 pm |
  19. Jakk

    Problems:

    500k debt for doctors degree
    colleges charge big $$$ for degree
    doctor charges big fee to pay debt and makes 225k a year pay off debt and makes great living

    Pharmaceuticals invest $$$ to make meds want big returns
    profit driven no generics until profit is made
    Pharmaceuticals pay to ensure only they supply
    Commercials for prescription drugs. Is there something wrong with me can the drug I saw fix me?
    Also enlist doctors to push the meds

    Government regulations require paperwork doctors office needs staff for paperwork. Staff needs to be trained more school debt need high salary to pay off debt

    Lawers like $$$ malpractice. Doctors need liability insurance for protection. Also another reason for paperwork.

    Companies provide Isurance which regulates doctor fees and meds so company doesnt have to pay too much. Insurance causes paperwork. need more staff and training. Insurance gets $$$ for services.

    ER takes uninsured but has overhead of all the above. Needs to pass this to patient or they have to pay it.

    Many problems need multiple plans to fix each. One common theme $$$. Every problem driven by $$$.

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

      spot on.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:14 pm |
    • JOHN BLAKE

      Hi everyone. This is John Blake, author of this article. No matter where you stand on this issue, it's encouraging to see so many responding and engaging with one another. I've written about religion for awhile and I've long wondered how Christians rely on their faith to either support or oppose health care reform. I heard about Mr. Potter many times, and people would allude to his faith but no one really talked to him about it. I was glad he agreed to talk to me at the last minute. Also glad to give a shout out to Remote Area Medical. That's a story in itself.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:15 pm |
    • bob572176

      Real problem paying CEO'S 50 million dollars to run a health care companies. Create a National health care plan and protect it from the thieves in congress from using the money except health care. Pay someone to run it a government salary. This eliminates all the CEO's of health care companies and makes more money available for the people who need it. Would be curious on what percent of premiums paid goes for care as compared to administration costs at health care companies. Bet more than 50 percent goes toward employees salaries, most going to the big shots and stock holders and the rest to lobby.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:20 pm |
    • VikasD

      Good summary.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:28 pm |
  20. cck99352

    The fat, sick, disgusting woman on the cover is a prime example of how poor decisions are plaguing our health care system. There is not enough money or resources to fix her self inflicted health issues. And, she is not alone (60% of adults are obese).

    June 27, 2012 at 11:09 pm |
    • Steve in Denver

      I would agree with you, except the "disgusting" part. But how do we fix it? I'm guessing you regularly call Mrs. Obama names for starting her "lets move" campaign, and are against Bloomberg's soda ban (so am I).

      June 27, 2012 at 11:12 pm |
    • Steven

      cck, most people who can't afford healthcare – can't afford to eat healthy.. They live off of processed food because it's cheaper. A lot of poorer people have thyroid conditions that cause weight gain – and prevent weight loss.. However, they can't afford to even get proper medical care to help them. Most don't even know they have one because of lack of Doctor access. I see people in these situation every day with my job.. Open your eyes.. and you're right.. there isn't "enough" money to help everyone.. that IS WHY the for profit medical system needs to go.. You can't do the right thing, morally – when you profit off of someones sickness. The current system is unsustainable..

      June 27, 2012 at 11:37 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.