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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. ari

    the comments on this article are scary. i mean to say that i am actually frightened that some of these people are voting-age citizens of my country.

    June 28, 2012 at 12:14 am |
  2. Ted

    American's that get sick or injured in Mexico have a very different experience than Mexican's and OTMs that go looking for healthcare in the United States, and do so as an organized group that are sucking the life out of our healthcare system. It's not just helping people in need, it's an organized effort to cause economic terrorism on the United States.

    June 28, 2012 at 12:13 am |
    • The Voice

      economic terrorism?

      how about Wall Street...Big Oil, Big tobacco....or even local and federal government! that's economic terrorism

      June 28, 2012 at 12:20 am |
    • Ted

      What about Wall Street, Ted? There are many threats against the US Economy, and one of the biggest ones are illegal aliens that are destroying this country with organized criminals, gang members (Mexican and Spanish Descent are more than half of all gang bangers), people funneled to US Hospitals to defraud those hospitals and the public that has to pay for their extreme care. It's all a joke. Wall Street criminals are also a problem, but giving these Illegal Aliens a by just because there are other criminals is a meaningless and childish argument.

      June 28, 2012 at 12:48 am |
  3. Howard

    I will not read any more comments, all we do is talk and talk. People will get sick, regardless of what they eat, drink or do. If we don't make and sell junk food, geuss what? We all would be healthy. Right? No... Wrong. You still will need basic medical care, and if you don't have a job.... You will not. I think this is issue that we all will be facing one day, unless we have millions stashed. Health Care is way out of control in US, and if you have a dog, you know what I'm talking about. I had to pay $190 so Vet can pull my dog's tooth. Even if all America is working, Health Care still need to be controlled, because most of the Americans can not afford it.

    June 28, 2012 at 12:12 am |
  4. lisa2010

    what would happen if the supreme court strike down the affordable care act, the medical insurance companies will just raise their premiums by a 100%, and if you get laid off, you lose your health insurance.. what would happen to those people who don't have insurance and really end up in the hospital with a serious illness, we as tax payers will still have to pay for that person not having insurance... i hope the courts keep the affordable care act...

    June 28, 2012 at 12:11 am |
  5. Marley

    OBAMACARE = GOP-care written under Clinton

    The INDIVIDUAL MANDATE was a GOP idea because they don't like to use the word TAX.

    The INDIVIDUAL MANDATE is just another way of saying: a HEALTHCARE TAX for those who making a certain level of income but don't have healthcare insurance.

    That is why Mitt Romney copied the idea for his state.

    June 28, 2012 at 12:11 am |
  6. Wahaha

    Tha t picture was a bunch of Mexicans....let then pay for there own nonsense!

    **********************************

    If you are a politician on capital hill, and when media reports like this, do you dare even to "change"?

    Media and journalists are messing up with their OWN country!!!

    June 28, 2012 at 12:10 am |
  7. Grumpy

    And by the way ... healthcare shouldn't be for profit??? Tell that to the doctors/nurses that have hundreds of thousands in student loans. And since we are it ... let's have food not for profit and what the heck cloths too ... they are at least as essential to our existence as healthcare. Some of you make no sense.

    June 28, 2012 at 12:10 am |
    • A921

      Healthcare workers receive wages. Stockholders receive profits. Only 18% of hospitals are for-profit. The question is whether insurance companies should make a profit.

      June 28, 2012 at 1:17 am |
  8. GMode22

    That's one small reason why I joined the military – free health care benefits for myself and my family. F-ck that!!

    June 28, 2012 at 12:08 am |
    • Ben Wiley

      great....yearly checkups so u can get ur legs blown off

      June 28, 2012 at 12:11 am |
  9. Marley

    If everyone was RICH then there would actually be no RICH people.

    You actually need POOR people in order for there to be RICH people.

    If you think about this real hard, you'll understand why the RICH have incentive to keep the POOR poor.

    One way of keeping the POOR poor is to make healthcare a LUXURY.

    June 28, 2012 at 12:08 am |
  10. FlaClif

    Potter was VP of Communications. Another example of a person far removed from the day-day operations of Healthcare feeling they are qualified to speak about the industry. Potter knows less about Healthcare in America than a biller at a small practice.

    June 28, 2012 at 12:07 am |
  11. Ben Wiley

    Doctors aren't Gods. They should take part in health care reform. My doctor owns part of a hospital and part of a parking garage downtown. I'm for putting limits on their pay and their wealth. Next to his building is an insurance building filled to the rim with people who never lift a finger to assist the ill or the elderly. Their main purpose if to find ways to deny health care to policy holders. If Doctors want to leave the industry then adios. The government should step in and begin a program to educate and employ our brightest students as Social Service Doctors. Go Obama! Kiss off privliged America – The Revolution is upon you.

    June 28, 2012 at 12:07 am |
  12. groenewegm

    Jesus provided health care to all but he didin't demand that Rome and it's citizens pay and provide for it.

    June 28, 2012 at 12:06 am |
    • Marley

      "Jesus" had magical powers. That is why he could give free healthcare to anybody who beg... I mean worshiped him.

      June 28, 2012 at 12:13 am |
  13. darby

    Healthcare is an inarguable moral right for all.

    June 28, 2012 at 12:05 am |
    • The Voice

      So is taking care of your body

      I don't see why I should pay for someone else's problem

      June 28, 2012 at 12:17 am |
    • darby

      Millions of people who take care of their bodies get sick. You or your family could also.

      June 28, 2012 at 12:42 am |
  14. Grumpy

    sorry for couple of mistakes in the previous post but wine coming towards my brain and flooding it
    Cheers again

    June 28, 2012 at 12:05 am |
  15. specter

    Health care should not be for profit. You may argue that would kill innovation or perhaps dissuade people from becoming dr.s. I disagree, it would just weed out the people that were in it for the wrong reasons. medicine in the us is overpriced. grab any prescription you are taking now and compare its cost here (not your copay but full cost) and compare it to the price of the same exact meds in Canada or Mexico.

    June 28, 2012 at 12:04 am |
    • The Voice

      I would be all for the Affordable Care Act if it were renamed the Accountable Care Act where those with health conditions related to lifestyle and diet were controlled so that their diet was monitored and their lifestyle habits were altered. And if they fail, they're off their insurance and back to where they started.

      90% of this nation's "health problems" are due to diet and lifestyle. Obesity EPIDEMICS are costing this country...I have a problem treating those who do not take responsibility for themselves. It kills the cause.

      June 28, 2012 at 12:14 am |
  16. TravelSheryl

    I am a beneficiary of Obama care because I don't qualify for private insurance. My only other alternative is a Texas state program that would cost more than three times the amount. I certainly hope the Supreme Court doesn't shoot it down.

    June 28, 2012 at 12:04 am |
  17. Grumpy

    Most of the analysis is so misleading. People look to their hearth before consulting their brains. First, think about it ... healthcare is scares ... so it must have a price above zero. Second, people want to live longer healthy lives but they don't really want to pay for it. Third, blaming the insurance companies? Looks like most of you are so naive. Ask yourself ... why do they exist? Go back in time, when the government put a ceiling on wages ... and companies wanted to pay higher wages but couldn't. So they started offering (tax deductible) benefits... and unions and workers love it (not that there is a difference ..whether you are paid the wage entirely or in the form of benefits ... who cares? ... anyway .. the IRS caught on the accounting trick (companies were deducting the amounts from pre-tax profits and said nah... but it was too late ... workers and unions love it ... so they started lobbying and there you go companies were allowed to deduct them and everyone was happy ... or were they? of course these benefits started growing and growing and companies didn't want to mange all this so insurance companies took over... and more and more the actual beneficiary of the medical services was removed more and more from the payment for the actual service (think ... when you go changing the oil for your car nobody is asking for your insurance ... and IT IS PREEMPTIVE maintenance ... cars don't run without oil) ... so they cared less and less about the costs but still wanted to live to be 100 at least..no matter the costs. And there you go ... you got yourself in a mess.. can't pay if you don't have the money ... you can try borrowing from the future ... as Europeans did ...be serious DO YOU REALLY believe the forecasts? they were giving similar ones in the 80s... 10b deficit and it was 100b. I got tired and don;'t really want to go into solutions now ... but don't fool yourself ... there aren't decreasing marginal costs and socialism doesn't work ... I experienced this myself. And if you think the government is the solution ... then you gotta take econ 101 again. Cheers!

    June 28, 2012 at 12:03 am |
    • CA Liberal

      Brain Damage Alert

      Health care should be in the same category as Police and Fire protection.

      June 28, 2012 at 12:12 am |
  18. Pam with cancer

    Yes, I have cancer. And luckily I have been able to afford COBRA. But, I am very aware of the fix I would be in if I couldn't. I have often wondered how a Christian could deny health care to the sick,elderly and children. Of course no REAL Christian could! The rest of you are all hypocrites. Sunday Christians, devoid of compassion or any understanding of the teachings of Jesus. I am a Buddhist – we believe in compassion for others because we understand that we are all connected. I know the teachings of Jesus because I was raised be a Christion, and converted to Buddhism, but I'm still a better Christian than most of you selfish, self-centered people. Republicans only develop kindness and compassion when trouble comes to their door. Democrats are able to feel and act on those feelings because they are capable of feeling empathy for others – even strangers. If you don't support universal health care you're going to hell where you belong.

    June 28, 2012 at 12:03 am |
    • TravelSheryl

      I can't stand it when I read "how can a Christian." This has nothing to do with religion. I am not Christian. I am Jewish and I have morals.

      June 28, 2012 at 12:06 am |
    • Macro

      Pam, I'm not religious but, as you, maybe I have much more compassion for the others than many Christians. And you are right in saying how too often self proclaimed Christians act so hypocritically, at the point to be disgusting. It's important to focus on Christians – the majority of Americans – because they should apply what Jesus was teaching, otherwise say you are something else. It is also so ridiculous when I ask people what they know about the health care in many other advanced countries, and the reality is that they don't know anything, beside what is spited out by the right conservative media, repeating on and on how horrible those systems are. Always judgments without any base. The question is when this country will be ready to move ahead in several issues, if it's not too late already.

      June 28, 2012 at 12:44 am |
  19. engymass2

    Would "someone" please tell these mentally slow jagoffs that this bill is going to "pass" ?!?!?!?

    June 28, 2012 at 12:03 am |
  20. Jerry Pelletier

    Tha t picture was a bunch of Mexicans....let then pay for there own nonsense!

    June 28, 2012 at 12:02 am |
    • Marley

      Don't you be making fun of Mexican Mormon Bishop Mitten's people.

      Don't you know Mitt's father was born in a Mormon colony in Mexico after his grandfather ran away for the USA to evade POLYGAMY charages?!

      June 28, 2012 at 12:16 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.