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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. jnuey

    she ate herself to death.. i don't feel sorry for someone that eat themselves into that shape. Fat , lazy and did it to herself. I shouldn't have to pay for her healthcare.

    June 28, 2012 at 2:12 am |
    • germ

      MOVE TO CANADA - free health care!!! .. break your leg? no problem we'll fix it for free. Break your arm? it's free! a car crash we only charge 50$ for the ambulance ride to the hospital but the treatment is free after!

      June 28, 2012 at 2:33 am |
  2. Klaark

    Republicans are evil. May those who vote for them have to be treated by the local vet.

    June 28, 2012 at 2:01 am |
    • Mike

      fool

      June 28, 2012 at 2:02 am |
    • jnuey

      we actually pay our bills and have to pay yours as well.. We can go to dr. because we actually have jobs, pay most of the taxes in the United States. You complain and want free stuff. Obama is great for you because he borrows money from China to give you stuff for free. Problem is the ATM machine is running dry and we are in major trouble.

      June 28, 2012 at 2:08 am |
    • electroguy

      They are evil because some fat slob decided to get hooked on drugs, then got sick due to his own choices and now its everyone's responsibility to take care of him right? Yeah.. And you are just too cheap to take of your fellow man on your own...

      June 28, 2012 at 2:15 am |
  3. Mike

    Offer free cheese burgers and you will get lines around the block, that doesn't mean people are starving. Some people refuse to seek care because it costs money. You make it free and it will get abused and over used. Just like anything else.

    June 28, 2012 at 2:00 am |
    • filthy monocle

      Did you think it's perhaps that they cannot afford it that they do not seek it? Perhaps there aren't opportunities. I love when everyone thinks that people seeing free help is just out of greed. Comparing hamburgers to human need is repugnant and weak.

      June 28, 2012 at 2:17 am |
    • germ

      I live in Canada and have free health care ... I rarely go to the hospital but when I go it's completely free.

      I think that everybody who goes to the hospital how has a job should have a fee depending of your income - free for jobless, 50 bucks minimum earners, 100$ fee for 40K$ earners, 200$ fee for 100k earners ect .... for serious long care illness insurance should be involved. Free health care in Canada works well - I like the fact that if I break my arm I can go fix it for free.

      June 28, 2012 at 2:25 am |
    • PRISM 1234

      One night stay in hospital with broken wrist was charged $31,000.00.....had ins., still had to pay almost $4,000.00 out of pocket. This charge didn't include Dr. Was told without ins. would have to pay $21,000.00, EVERY penny of it! That is nothing short of criminal!
      Every day the common man is burdened with load he can't carry. And if he stumbles and falls, he's kicked and knocked down, and told he's sorry, lazy and stupid for not being resourceful, because after all, he didn't provide wisely for himself! But that's American celebrated Capitalism, where crime is legal so long is not the little man who commits it,a dn greed is being called good, even glamorised in what Americans call "entertainment" ! Is is wonder that this country is going to hell in a "hand basket'?

      June 28, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
  4. kimmerkel

    A single payer system with everyone in and no one out is the only thing that makes sense morally and economically.

    June 28, 2012 at 1:59 am |
  5. Austin4u

    Currently, I have no Health Insurance. I was asked to leave my last, where I did have health Insurance. The catch is, that $380.00 a month was withheld from my check. So I had Insurance, but had to pay 100% for it. This was the case for 4 years. The thing is, I am very health, and I never went to the Doctor during these 4 years. Still I did pay into the Health Care system over $18,000.00, and received nothing for my money.

    Now I am in my new start up business, and have decided that I can not afford this payment now. I look at Obama's plan to see if there is something in it for me. What I found, is that Obama views me as Free Loader. He says that I must buy Insurance, and he hopes I will never use it, like before.

    So what is the solution?, I do not want to pay $5,000.00 per year, and never use it, but I i get sick, I am in the weeds.

    So what is fair? What is the solution?

    Any Ideals?

    June 28, 2012 at 1:58 am |
    • electroguy

      Buy a 'catastrophic policy' It wll be much cheaper, but will only kick in on very serious illness...

      June 28, 2012 at 2:17 am |
    • thinklivelearn

      You are assuming you won't get sick and won't need the funds, but eventually in life, you will. Currently, you are healthy, and the premiums you pay are put into a pool that may cover other people who are sick. One day, when you're older, you will benefit when the combined premiums that others pay cover your healthcare costs. Also, $5,000/year isn't that much compared to a $20,000 bill from one emergency. This is insurance in case you get sick. It's like car insurance. You pay for it to protect yourself. It's a good thing if you end up not using it. Obama's healthcare reform expands coverage to Americans who don't have it. It lowers total healthcare costs. We are already spending 18% of our GDP on healthcare alone. What a disgrace for such a developed nation. Pre-Obamacare was worse.

      June 28, 2012 at 2:20 am |
    • Obama is way too conservative!

      Is there a major problem with the healthcare system? Yup.

      Was the old way severely dysfunctional? Yup. Only rich people could like that way of doing things.

      Is Obama's version better? Nope. He waffled and compromised long before he ever came out with it, then waffled and compromised again. Honestly, it seemed that he was aware that there was a problem, but he had no idea what the solution was, anso he slapped together a very odd assortment of random pieces and hoped it would be a breakthrough. It isn't. He created something that everyone (except an Obama groupie) could like, which really does not improve much of anything.

      Single payer will come when things get bad enough . . . and they will.

      As a true leftist, I knew Obama's change was a fraud the instant he appointed a cabinet of the usual suspects, and accepted the Nobel Prize without having done anything to get it. He sold us out on Guantanamo (still open), Afghanistan (still going), prosecution of torture and other political crimes (didn't), the Patriot Act (still mostly in force).

      But even with all that, Obama is far and away a better president than George WarWeird Bush and Vice President Dick Vader.

      This should bring in the dingbats! Send in the clowns!
      We will ultimately end up with single payer, though it will take decades of going from bad to worse.

      June 28, 2012 at 2:31 am |
  6. Top_News

    Has anyone been to a VA Hospital and seen the conditions there lately?

    June 28, 2012 at 1:56 am |
  7. augustghost

    two words....stem cell

    June 28, 2012 at 1:53 am |
  8. Brian

    "When he takes this message to churches, some shut their doors, he says".............................

    Does this surprise anyone? Religion in this country is a mile wide and an inch deep.

    June 28, 2012 at 1:48 am |
    • Top_News

      And what's scary is that the Muslim Brotherhood knows it.

      June 28, 2012 at 1:57 am |
  9. C

    This Wendell Porter has been making contributions to Democrats for years. Weak story to run.

    http://fundrace.huffingtonpost.com/neighbors.php?type=name&oldest=1&lname=Potter+&fname=Wendell&search=Search+Names

    June 28, 2012 at 1:43 am |
    • Reality Check

      Were you trying to make some point?

      June 28, 2012 at 1:52 am |
    • Robin

      One donation to Dean in 2004 is not exactly a raving Democrat.

      June 28, 2012 at 1:55 am |
  10. gggalaxy

    What is it with Jesus Freaks?? This is not about Jesus!!! Not everyone in America is a fricken Cristian RW Idiot! This is about human decency!

    June 28, 2012 at 1:38 am |
    • electroguy

      Is it decent to ruin your life, make bad decisions and then have others suffer for your mistakes? How about 'responsibility'? Is that in your vocabulary? If someone is 'responsible' for their condition, then the only 'humanly decent' thing to do is turn them down and let them take care of themselves..

      June 28, 2012 at 2:23 am |
  11. annieL

    God bless you and your family, Mr. Potter. Keep telling the Christian truth and doing God's work for all of us.

    June 28, 2012 at 1:38 am |
  12. Neo convert

    Conversion is a big business in third world. Missionaries count the converts like cattle heads. More is the better and pious americans cheer and donate more. Reality is, these neo converts are Left to fend on their own for bread and butter the way they were before. Difference is they are more outcast than before. Someone tell them that after centuries black christains are still looked down as a freebooters and hated like animals.

    June 28, 2012 at 1:36 am |
  13. NV

    If we could have a national referendum that states that everyone should have the same insurance that are guaranteed to members of the Congress then we will all have a single payer system with controlled cost and good medical coverage!!

    June 28, 2012 at 1:32 am |
  14. karren

    another christian who feels guilt about past behaviour..and expects to be forgiven...if all is good in what you do, .just do it and leave out the rest.

    June 28, 2012 at 1:27 am |
  15. vince

    IS THAT A UFO TOP LEFT ?

    June 28, 2012 at 1:23 am |
  16. Mike P

    "He says the New Testament is filled with Jesus providing universal health care – he healed the poor and outcast."

    Hey, if doctors and nurses could just touch their patients and heal them of whatever ails them, I'd say that they should do it for free, too, but that's simply not the case.

    June 28, 2012 at 1:22 am |
  17. Danno

    These articles that attempt to divide are ridiculous. EVERYONE will admit that our healthcare system is broken and needs serious reform. The real debate is over how this reform is handled - and no reform is better than the Armageddon that is about to be enacted on our country's small business owners and middle class if the Supreme Court doesn't overturn this bill. ... If Wendell's conscience is shocked by watching people line up to receive health care in an animal stall, wait until he sees them lining up to eat there, too.

    June 28, 2012 at 1:22 am |
    • toadlife

      Armageddon? Hyperbole much?

      June 28, 2012 at 1:28 am |
    • VegasRage

      What they are doing now certainly isn't working either when only a small handful can really afford healthcare. Often you see HRA plans that require you to pay the first $5000 and then they will pay after that. The reason is simple, the average amount a person needs annually on healthcare is $5000, in other words the insurance company effectively pays zero on average.

      June 28, 2012 at 1:30 am |
    • Reality Check

      How in the world does this article attempt to divide? An individual chose his own path following his own heart. Do you have some issue with that?

      June 28, 2012 at 1:55 am |
  18. Mark

    It is good to see a "Christian" not spitting hatred and actually living what Jesus seemed to have taught. Help others, and it is bad that people die because they can't have healthcare in the US. It seems like a no-brainer, but both Jesus and I would be called Socialists and dismissed for suggesting it by some.

    June 28, 2012 at 1:21 am |
    • Danno

      Please quit referring to Jesus as a socialist ... he simply wasn't. Socialism doesn't reward anyone. Jesus does. Socialism is where the state controls everything. The early followers of Jesus advocated a give-to-those-in-need policy, something quite different than socialism. It's just disingenuous and intellectually dishonest to suggest that Jesus proffered any socialist tenets in his teaching. Of course, they weren't capitalistic either. But stop using Jesus as a political football.

      June 28, 2012 at 1:25 am |
    • yang

      Jesus doesn't hand out rewards, either. In fact, i think he's probably a wee bit disappointed to know that so many follow his teachings because that's what they're looking for. if you had to fit a political system to Jesus, i think socialism is your closest bet. isn't that enough for you to look at it more critically?

      June 28, 2012 at 1:43 am |
  19. rory

    Be nice to each other,let's promote world peace together,love you all

    June 28, 2012 at 1:17 am |
  20. Easy E

    I'm all for universal helathcare, but CNN, please, don't make Jabba the Hut be the poster...uh...wwww,mmmm,,uhhh...oh hell "person". That is one fugly creature you've got pictured there, take it to the large animal vet, not the Doc in the Box.

    June 28, 2012 at 1:17 am |
    • algorelies

      hmm..if a picture were to tell a thousand words, the lady is sick from obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney and liver problems, circulatory problems, heart problems, and probably some sort of cancer stemming from the 50-60 lbs of visceral fat.
      Go to traMlaW on any saturday and you will see the "assembly line" of sick or soon to be sick americans buying hoardes of junk food with their pmatdoof debit cards.
      See, health carre is not needed if americans were to be responsible for their own well being. Period. Eat well, drink lots of water, sleep well and MOVE!!! Walk, run, cycle, exercise, do anything to keep your body limber and your heart healthy.
      But no. Obama would not want to stop the one thing that this country manufactures, and very well, sick americans.
      Put a tax on obesity, have the money go to a health care fund and reward those americans who are healthy with some payback money. All taf sratsab will have to pay, until they become healthy or not.
      See, this chicago hustler got away with claiming that 40 million americans did not have health care...did that mean that 40 million americans NEEDED health care?
      doing the math, that is 13.3 % (2 out of 15) of americans are sick and need to go see a doctor or a hospitall?
      And where did this wizard get these numbers??
      See no reporter had the cajones to ask the usurper (no tiene papeles, so he can't be president) these questions.
      But now, a la Al Gore-esque, the media is painting cutesey examples of people waiting in line for treatment...before I turn on the water works, I have to ask:
      How did all of these people get to be that way? No one really, is born sick, or obese, like the lady in the cover story. Lady Obama has a good idea in fighting childhood obesity..nip the problem in the bud.
      I have my own thoughts on that as my plan, which I emailed to Sen. Ron Paul, to begin taxing obesity at $1.25/lb of fat above a 12% body content of fat would force americans to lose weight and take better care of themselves and their children, else, pay out of your ass, literally. Fat tax would be taken out of paychecks and would suplement or replace medicare tax.
      So, those who need to lose more, actually pay more.
      So simple, the government will not touch it.
      The group Red White and Blue group proposed for me to write a white paper on this, I did not. Michelle comes up with her plan soon after...go figure.
      But 13% of americans are sick? Would you not call that more of a present danger to this country when the odds one is likely to suffer at the hands of a "terrorist" will be at the next "staged" terrorist plot conveniently foiled by the FBI or Obama's gardner, or face american terrorism at the hands of a barely educated, double-digit vocabulary TSA thug?
      Seriously, folks. See through the tihs colored malarkey Obama, the media and the supreme court are handing to the american people by the handfuls.
      What can you or I do? Do not throw away your vote. Begin with yourself. Take such good care of yourself and your loved ones, your money and your health and there will be no government action that could ever get to you.

      June 28, 2012 at 1:33 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.