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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. zaphed

    My plan is to commit suicide when get a terminal disease. Screw this place called usa

    June 27, 2012 at 11:52 pm |
  2. Screwed

    So where's the incentive for it NOT to be abused? Glad to know I'll be paying for people that have NO desire to take care of their bodies- smokers, drinkers, drug abusers, gluttons. Nothing says punishment by being forced to pay for lifestyles I don't agree with. I DON'T have health care right now- I pay out of pocket. The system is jacked for sure, but this isn't the way to fix it.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:52 pm |
  3. Marley

    Some person wrote: "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."

    Obamacare was written by Republicans under Clinton because that was the only way any healthcare reform bill could pass Congress. But because the Dems and Obama could pass it without them, the Republicans are against it.

    The INDIVIDUAL MANDATE was a Republican idea!!!

    As well, in 1986, Ronald Reagan along with his Republican Congress signed a bill that forbid hospitals to deny anybody emergency care. That includes ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS.

    This bill was called the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor act (EMTAL).

    But guess what? Reagan and the Republicans did not find a way to pay for this bill! Hence, the cost of this bill was passed on to the tax payers and ultimately, your health care premiums increased.

    Obamacare was once good enough for the Republicans. That is why Mitt Romney copied it for Romneycare. So, now the Republicans are only against it for POLITICAL REASONS ... to defeat Obama.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:51 pm |
    • Peter Knight

      Well said Marley, I wish the average Americans did have some brain and look at the facts instead of listening to morons like Rush.

      June 28, 2012 at 12:02 am |
    • King Liberal

      Actually Marley, I think it's just good old fashioned racism myself...but hey who knows right?

      June 28, 2012 at 12:20 am |
  4. Francis

    None of you morons know anything about the economics of health care. Any of you doctors who are democratic monkeys and agree with Obamacare obviously don't spend enough time treating many patients. Most docs who approve of Obamacare are professors in so called "ivory towers". I always remember my dad said "doctors that can't hack it in practice...teach.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:49 pm |
    • ted williams

      nice, thoughtful response there francis

      June 27, 2012 at 11:54 pm |
    • Canadian

      I live in a country with outstanding health care based upon a single payer system. Doctors are still very wealthy and the quality of health care is better than in the USA. Everyone has access. The system costs 70% less per capita of the American system (less than half). In total my government spends less money per capita on health care than the USA government (seriously, look it up).

      I am Canadian and I understand health care economics very well. Our system is better, it is indisputable.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:54 pm |
    • aN

      I spent 1 night in the ER and I walk out the next day with 3k worth of medical bills coming my way. AND I'M FULLY INSURED.

      I'm no Obama fan but you pubes did NOTHING (and would do nothing if it wasn't for dems!)

      June 27, 2012 at 11:55 pm |
    • Screwed

      You said it. The bubble that these academics live in is incredible, nothing exists outside their perceived circles of total knowledge and clarity. It will ruin this country.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:56 pm |
    • John RM

      Brilliant, you insult any person who teaches new medical students. So they should all stop teaching and go back to practicing, right – and when there's a massive shortage of doctors in a few years well, at least we didn't have any of those pansies left in the profession who couldn't "hack it" treating patients! Idiot.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:59 pm |
    • King Liberal

      Do you actually read any data??? Ever??? I'll help you like I've had to help so many conservatives. Put down your cigar and rifle and check this link or another 100,000 just like it with actual facts about Canada vs. U.S. healthcare http://www.denverpost.com/recommended/ci_12523427 I back all my posts with facts...you just seem to post your misguided opinions...like all the conservatives I know....people are wising up...someday maybe you will too.

      June 28, 2012 at 12:16 am |
  5. 123elle

    I felt so touched to read this man's story. A spiritual insight like that is truly a gift, whether one is religious or not. I know in my heart that non-judgmental compassion and mercy toward the poor and the ill is the right way to treat our fellow human beings. We cannot do better in our lifetimes than to enable the ease of somebody's suffering, and that includes the animals that share this planet. Cast thy bread upon the waters always resonated with me, although I am not religious myself. I love our country and I know that we are capable of uniting to help one another.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:49 pm |
  6. Raymond

    I don't really understand why people get freaked out on government "death panel", but they're OK with private insurance "death panel".

    Honestly, there should be a quasi government andprivate healthcare partnership model. Government should provide a safety net and care if you really can't afford care, but at the same time there should be some leve of private healthcare service available for those who can afford to pay more.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:48 pm |
  7. Rajeev G

    I believe that I am opposite to Mr. Potter. I used to believe that our government should give healthcare to people who cannot provide it for themselves or their family. I still keep that view but I want to make an exception... people who are too lazy to work; people who have unhealthy lifestyle of their own choosing; people who smokes or drinks or do not stay active or do not eat healthy... I do not want my government or my tax dollars to go to support their health.

    That is the America I know where people are self reliant and self sufficient.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:46 pm |
    • Canadian

      Right now you subsidize health care executives that are greedy to a far greater level than my country subsidises lazy fat smokers.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:57 pm |
  8. aN

    they better start banning a whole lot more than soda in my opinion. If I have to pay for everyone else's healthcare (like I do now with my high premiums and like I WILL have to do with Obama's stupid law) then there better be some damn rules! BAN unhealthiness, PERIOD. I'm sick of paying for you slobs.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:46 pm |
    • 123elle

      All that rage and bitterness eats away at your health and quality of life. Try to spend more time being grateful that you are capable of reading and thinking, communicating and getting around, and less time playing the zero sum game. Yes, many people are flawed and foolish, but they know that better than you do. Besides, bad luck can strike anybody; people you love can come to ruin; the more compassion you show, the less you add to the sum of human misery.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:57 pm |
  9. Ramon

    This story is an eye-opener in many ways. I most certainly agree with John Blake in his assessment of the situation and with Mr. Potter's 'come-to-Jesus-moment.' What troubles me is a simple fact, what do the 'thousands' in Virginia who came to the 'animal stalls' for treatment think about the Obama Health Care plan? Do allow me to guess; I'm sure that the great majority of them will be AGAINST the so-called Obamacare and are very likely to be die-hard republicans.

    What does this say about our nation? We are unfortunately a big bunch of incredibly uninformed people. If you look at other places in the US which desperately need health care coverage,and West Virginia comes to mind, then you will see people adamantly against Obama's health care reform. IT IS MIND-BOGGLING.

    I have lived in 7 countries, done business in 23 and visited 48; the US's health care system is absolutely PATHETIC compared to most of the countries I have been to. As human beings, it is not enough to look at what other US states are doing in terms of health care. We must look outward in the world and see what other developed and/or developing countries are doing in terms of health care. WE WILL LEARN A LOT. Most of what we are doing here in the US is dangerous, damaing and detrimental to our well-being as a country.

    Why can't we WAKE UP AND SEE THE TRUTH!!!!!!!

    June 27, 2012 at 11:46 pm |
  10. Brianna

    Wow...ask a British citizen who just pulled out another tooth with pliers how well socialized medicine works....Ask a Canadian citizen who needs emergency open heart surgery and is put on a five year waiting list.....

    I do not know what the answer is but it is NOT Obamacare.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:45 pm |
    • Shane

      Britain's healthcare system isn't that great. But Canada tends to triage its patients. If it isn't important, you get put on a list. I know aCanadian that went in for what she thought were minor issues and ended up having surgery the next day because the doctor found out they had a major issue and got bumped to the head of the line.

      The main person that you see as the poster child against the Canadian system is the person with the brain tumor that came to the US to get it removed. That person had a lot of money, and the tumor wasn't a threat to her health. She was put on a waiting list because it was something that was in any way life threatening.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:56 pm |
    • Peter Knight

      Brianna, I wish fervently that you lose your job/business and your health insurance and have no means to buy one, just so that you can live the other side. Teeth pulled out by pliers in Britain? Instead of talking like a moron, take some to read the Health law and then come to a conclusion.

      Curing diseases is a not for profit profession. It's the oath all doctors take. The oath does not say no money, no cure.

      O God, please give people like these a brain, a brain where they can think, learn and reason.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:59 pm |
    • Canadian

      I am a Canadian Citizen and you do not have the facts on the Canadian system. Individuals diagnosed with a heart problem in Canada have a 7% better outcome rate than those who have private health care in the USA. Many of the 'stats' that opponents of public health care invent about Canada are selective at best and often are outright lies (such as your 5 year claim).

      June 28, 2012 at 12:00 am |
    • Matt

      To quote you, "Wow", what an uniformed response.
      As a Canadian, I can tell you that my father in law had air evac and 25 days in ICU plus physiotherapy. Came out of it in great shape. Going for a hike this weekend actually. Total cost, the hotel stay for family. If it was in the US, how would that have played out?
      Oh, and I currently have two family doctors, and could change at any time as there are lots of new clinics opening, and I can choose whoever I want.
      It's amazing that in a country like the US, where so many people do benefit from the government subsidies in one way or the other, how you continuously think government is incompetent. It's not your government, it's the poisoned politics and out of control corporate lobbying, oh, and the ridiculous level of religion and lack of education.

      June 28, 2012 at 12:01 am |
    • Ridiculousness

      A Canadian who needs emergency heart surgery does not wait 5 months. That's ridiculous. The only way that's going to happen is if they live far from a city and are unwilling or unable to go to a hospital in a major city. We have a lot of empty and near empty space in Canada.

      You have to wait in Canada if you can wait, not if you can't. It's called TRIAGE. We treat people based on need. Please don't use us as part of your war against the poor.

      June 28, 2012 at 12:04 am |
    • King Liberal

      Hey Brianna, I'd rather be on a five year waiting list than no hope of a waiting list or even a f-ing check-up like 50 million of our fellow Americans. And by the way, I have relatives in Montreal. Great uncle Mike got his heart operation in three weeks back in 1997...he just turned 84. You don't know what the hell you're talking about or you're just another conservative idiot...not sure which but I'm leaning toward idiot.

      June 28, 2012 at 12:04 am |
  11. dave

    Oh wow, CNN just happens to write an Obama-serving, emotional piece on the eve of the SCOTUS decision on Obamacare. CNN should just incorporate with the DNC and be done with it. Vomitous.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:44 pm |
    • pogojo

      DNC – CNN

      June 27, 2012 at 11:46 pm |
    • ted williams

      it's the voice of reason and compassion, unlike Faux News – the voice of the selfish and ignorant

      June 27, 2012 at 11:55 pm |
    • John RM

      Dear god, the scandal! CNN is trying to influence the outcome of the case through this article! Except they're a bit late... oh well.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:55 pm |
    • Welcome to Reality

      Yeah, it's pathetic, it really really is.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:56 pm |
    • King Liberal

      Yeah Dave, because FOX doesn't pander to the conservatives right? No spin there...what a joke .

      June 28, 2012 at 12:18 am |
  12. related

    Social Security – broke. Medicare – broke. Now another welfare program is going to do great? Somehow I'm a bit skeptical.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:44 pm |
    • pogojo

      Dont forget schools and the post office

      June 27, 2012 at 11:47 pm |
    • ted williams

      yes privatize everything – then soon we can be like most third world countries

      June 27, 2012 at 11:56 pm |
    • King Liberal

      More posts with no facts...I'm so tired of correcting conservatives. Google 'financial solvency of Social Security' or 'financial solvency of Medicare' and tell me what you come up with?? Your friends here are also posting that the Post Office is broke and it is due to a brutal mandate (rammed through by Republicans in 2006). Here's the link to FACTS (I know it's hard for you guys to actually read facts but here you are) http://crooksandliars.com/kenneth-quinnell/more-details-emerge-republican-as and more here http://thehill.com/blogs/floor-action/senate/223395-senate-kills-gop-effort-to-derail-postal-reform-bill

      June 28, 2012 at 12:31 am |
  13. JusSayin

    @ Tdisco: Free clinic.... Yeah, in animal stalls and open air camps. If I get a free meal covered with manure, maggots and filth, and the provider scoops up misleading pr, you better believe I am objecting strenuously.

    @BobtheCat: It is worse than you portray. How much healthcare is wasted because the poor working
    have no insurance for an annual physical and a cheap blood pressure med, and end up with 6 weeks in hospital for a stroke.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:44 pm |
  14. Fubarack

    Instead of complaining about those giving free health care, Wendell should pony up for a new clinic to house those who are helping out, as opposed to whining like Wendell.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:44 pm |
  15. related

    We are all going to go broke.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:43 pm |
  16. Francis

    This is the democratic party's swan song. I agree CNN is an extension of the democratic party

    June 27, 2012 at 11:43 pm |
  17. Michael

    If universal healthcare isn't accepted soon, we'll never be able to afford it. Working people can't even afford it now. The future looks bleaker with every passing day, except for the greedy or lucky.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:41 pm |
    • No Obamacare

      Let's be clear, Obamacare isn't Universal Coverage. Passing a law that says by law you have to have medical insurance without giving you a way to pay for it is NOT Universal Coverage. I like many other provisions of Obamacare, but the individual mandate portion is silly. It was silly when Romney allowed it to happen in Massachusetts, it was ridiculous for Obama to pretend Obamacare was meaningful legislation.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:44 pm |
  18. stevenbeto

    Describing Dr. Potter as a health care industry “Judas”, equates the Health Care Industry to Jesus Christ. I applaud Dr. Potter's conversion and wish I had been there to witness the kiss in Profit's Garden.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:38 pm |
  19. TvNyC

    So you mean to tell me that healthcare for everybody is a bad idea, I think personally that everybody should have a second chance. Therefore, if your stuck with no money no job the government should.maintain at least.healthcare for you. Once your financially stable than youll probably have money to buy insurance. Basically in the long run itll save.money.for.the country and people wont have to go er the last min. Theyll be stable with healthy lives. Lets admit it we can help each other solve it.. This is the best.country, hands down. We need to tell each other whats right.for us. This is good for everybody. Trust me.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:38 pm |
    • Jon Samuel

      "Therefore, if your stuck with no money no job the government should.maintain at least.healthcare for you." The reason we have high unemployment is because of excessive taxation and regulations. So your answer to failed socialism that causes high unemployment is ... let me see ... more socialism. Move to Greece if you like such an approach.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:45 pm |
    • NWGuyInTheRain

      And just what is healthcare - a physical exam once a year - ok. Some counseling on the hazards of being obese – ok. A liver transplant? A hip replacement? A knee replacement. You want to give these items away for free. But if I – the person footing the bill for all of this, you know the TAXPAYER – I have to pay my 20% or about $8K. But these people get it for free. I that your idea of fair and equitable?

      June 27, 2012 at 11:55 pm |
  20. David

    Ronald Reagan said when your gov't controls medicine, you are then a socialist country.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:38 pm |
    • the truth

      Why in the world do yo put so much stock in President Reagan? What did he really do for the average american with his trickle down voodoo economics? Please let me know. As for health care, I hope you have a good provider or never get sick. every industrialized country on the planet has universal healthcare except us...

      June 27, 2012 at 11:43 pm |
    • Mike K

      It is not necessary that tens of thousands of Americans should die every year in order that we avoid some political label. That's the inescapable truth. People are dying because the richest nation in the world wants to avoid being called "socialist?"

      June 27, 2012 at 11:44 pm |
    • Marley

      But Ronald Reagan signed the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor (EMTAL) bill with the help of his Republican Congress in 1986 that forbid hospitals and any medical professionals to deny emergency medical care to anybody – including ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS.

      And typical of Republicans, Reagan and his crew forgot to find a way to pay for it! Hence, the cost of unpaid emergency care was passed on to the tax payers and caused insurance premiums to increase.

      So by your definition, that would make Ronald Reagan and the Republican Congress of 1986 .... SOCIALIST.

      CONTRADICTION it seems.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:48 pm |
    • GoStickYourReligion.

      Ronald Reagan was a gun-runner. Why should we care what he said?

      June 27, 2012 at 11:49 pm |
    • Jon Samuel

      The Truth – I remember that period well. Jimmy Carter's got us into 21% interest rates, double digit inflation, high unemployment, gas lines etc. Ronald Reagan pushed through tax cuts, businesses and the economy roared back and the recovery lasted for decades. Even Bill Clinton understood pre-growth policies help everyone. Obama = Carter II and is stuck on stupid

      June 27, 2012 at 11:53 pm |
    • Marley

      @Jon Samuel

      Go re-read your economics history. Many economists will tell you that Jimmy Carter inherited an economy that was on the verge of a recession.

      It was then actually Carter's policies that ended the recession.

      What Ronald Reagan did was exactly what Bush Jr. did ... he created a BUBBLE through his economic policies.

      When Bush Sr. then became President, Bush Sr. had to do the unthinkable ... Bush Sr. had to raise taxes.

      When Clinton became President, Clinton also had to ... raise taxes.

      Both Bush Sr. and Clinton raised taxes to fix the economic problems created by Ronald Reagan.

      June 28, 2012 at 12:00 am |
    • ted williams

      Ronald also raised the debt ceiling 18 times

      June 28, 2012 at 12:00 am |
    • The Right Thing To Do

      And what's wrong with being a socialist country? Nothing! Nothing at all! One has to remember that Jesus would have sided with the Socialists and the Democrats on this issue and many others! One has to always remember that what the CONServatives try to paint as "socialist" is nothing more than YOUR Own Money that You have paid to the government that is being used to help Yourself in your later years of need. That includes those whom the Republicans think they are 'funding'! They are not. Those people are actually Funding Themselves with money THEY paid in during their younger working years! But the big question is: What was Reagan's excuse?! Oh yeah, he was a heartless Republican. Figures!

      June 28, 2012 at 12:20 am |
    • King Liberal

      Great, bring it on!!! Socialism!!!! Yes!!!!!! As a person with degrees in social policy and law..do you know the definition of socialism??? Bet you don't 🙂

      June 28, 2012 at 12:34 am |
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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.