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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. Joe Seattle

    Potter's "logic" is ridiculous.

    Last I checked, Jesus said leave to Caesar what is Caesars. I don't remember him talking about gov't run health care, or any other sort of fascism.

    What Jesus did advocate – people to having compassion for one another as individuals – doesn't work for Potter, because that'd mean reaching into his own (apparantly fat) wallet instead of yours. Pathetic.

    If you want someone to look after your health care, how about starting with yourself. Stop smoking and get that obesity under control. Those who won't even do those things for themselves don't need to be part of the conversation.

    June 27, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
    • Richard

      Can you explian:
      A) How this is government RUN healthcare?
      B) How government run healthcare is facist?

      Thanks in advance.

      June 27, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • me

      I'm ashamed Mr. Joe is from Seattle.

      June 27, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
  2. ja

    the man didn' need to look that far, when in the ivory towers most pretend the lack of only exist in third world countries, America has a sixth world country within its borders, always have and will, due to the greed factor

    June 27, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
  3. J R Brown

    His Christianity didn't prevent him from going back to Cigna until his finances were in order so he could leave. His Christianity didn't prevent him from spending a lifetime being "the problem" instead of "the solution". Keep your Christianity, pal...it didn't stop you from becoming a corporate schill who PERPETUATED the malaise you lament; a real christian wouldn't put career, earning potential and worldly possessions above "loving people" in the first place.

    This guy is a fraud; but, then again, so are most christians....especially those who wage political wars for "human rights" in secular world governments. People like this guy make me want to just vomit

    June 27, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
  4. Mike

    I can't find the spot in the Bible where it says we need government mandated health care systems financed through taxation. And if Jesus wanted everyone healed then why didn't he just blanket-heal the entire nation of Isreal in one big wave of the hand. Jesus healed in order to demonstrate his divinity to an unbelieving nation. I don't think he was ushering in a new generation of human health care. IMHO.

    Hey ART, when you force crack on people they get addicted. The addiction to medicare and social security is exactly that. The federal overnment forced these programs on everone just like Obamacare. Of course...after the addiction set's in it seems impossible to root it out...but that what needs to be done. We need to wean the nation off of SS and Medicare AND repeal Obamacare. Further we need the Fed to disband and go home...and take the lawyers with them. Our limited government has become an overbearing tyrant and the people of this country need to rise up and "thrown it off"...both republicans and democrats alike. Send all the fascists home.

    June 27, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
    • REALpatriot

      Mike, you a liberal trying to make conservatives look silly???

      June 27, 2012 at 10:33 pm |
  5. Yakobi

    Jesus wouldn't advocate for Obamacare–he'd just whip up a miracle and mass-heal everyone for free!

    June 27, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • alex chapman

      Jesus & the Father 'perform" miracles by using the hands of humans. Getting humans to act Divinely IS the miracle.

      June 27, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      @alex

      LOL Oh now isn't that just all kinds of convenient. Ah sometimes religious people make me laugh so much.

      June 27, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
  6. LordHaveMercy

    Stephen Colbert said it rather nicely, "If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it."
    I applaud the man on standing up for his beliefs.

    June 27, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • Mike

      I don't mind anyone standing up for their beliefs. On the other hand where did we get this idea that implicit in standing up for your beliefs you have to brow beat everyone into submission under your standard by passing a new law. If you would like to help at the local soup kitchen by all means do so. But don't pass laws that force me to do the same. We have to stop engaging in creating laws that destroy liberty rather than uphold it. A nation that strips away income in the form of taxation and then uses those funds to further coerce the populace into submission is not a nation of liberty at all. It's come to the point where we really have to stop calling this the land of the free and home of the brave. We are a nation enslaved by a federal system that creates money and taxes income in the same breath. The federal government has become our master.

      June 27, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • Dean

      Mike with your way of thinking, why would you want to continue to live in a country that isn´t much to your liking If you are smart enough to make a good living then why not move someplace more suitable to your beliefs. I did, and have never regretted it. Stop the crybaby comments and do something about it, instead of complaining on the internet.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:32 pm |
    • REALpatriot

      What Dean said.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:35 pm |
  7. Ryan in Texas

    So now I'm suppossed to pay for their healthcare? Please. Pay for your own. How much money did Jesus give to pay for people's healthcare? NONE. He could cure people at will for free.
    Jesus said to help the poor. People who have nothing and are starving. Look at the picture – do any of them look hungry? We forget that poverty is absolute, not relative. If you have food, a house, running water, cellphones, tv, cable, cars – like the average "poor" person in the US has, then you are not poor. Certainly not by the standards of Jesus.
    We simply have many people who set aside no money for healthcare. Yet those same people have plenty of other luxuries in their lives.
    Face it, handouts make people lazy and dependant. If they want to give them free medical care, let them pay for it with their welfare money.

    June 27, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • me

      "If they want to give them free medical care, let them pay for it with their welfare money." PRICELESS rofl –

      June 27, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • Richard

      Maybe they could just all die and decrease the surplus population....there but for the grace of God.

      June 27, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
    • independentlyowned

      Wow, I don't think I've ever read anything so cynical and inhumane as your post. For one thing, poverty and hunger do not necessarily go hand in hand. Yes there's plenty of food for people, but the cheapest food is the worst for you, hence obesity problems among the poor. Second, people can't "put aside money for healthcare" when they need that money to pay bills and feed their families. I don't think you realize how strapped some people are. These people don't have smart phones or nice cars, or cars at all for that matter. You should go visit that clinic in VA and talk to those people about their lives and how much money they have and then come back and post your ignorant drivel.

      June 27, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
    • me

      Absolutely independentlyowned – another thing people like Ryan miss is that the people who are struggling aren't usually the ones on Medicaid – it's the people working multiple part time jobs who make just enough to be ineligible for help, get no coverage through their jobs, and don't quite have enough to pay $500 a month for health insurance. My family is now in the top 20% of household income in this country but I CAME from that – and forget the stereotypes. That's called cherry picking. I didn't have a cellphone AT ALL until about 2 years ago because we could not afford it. Give me a break with your stereotypes. I grew up eating On-cor meals, Ellio's pizza, and Kraft mac & Cheese and I am STILL struggling to get my health on track. You don't know of what you speak. At all. It amazes me that people either 1: can't put themselves in others shoes, or 2: make it then assume that "EVERYONE" can – when the reality is, SOMEONE is always going to be stuck at the bottom!

      June 27, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
    • Ryan in Texas

      "me" – you point out that someone has to be at the bottom. That's exactly what I'm saying about people trying to make "poor" relative. Someone will always have less than you. So do you think that Jesus means that a guy making $1 million a year needs to give to a guy making $100,000 a year because relatively speaking they are "poor"?
      Of course not. There are so few people in the US that even come close to meeting the world's definition of poor. People need to get out of the US and check out how people live beyond the tourist sites.
      Heck, go to Mexico, and tell them how poor you are. You have running water, indoor plumbing, electricity, heat/ac, tv, internet, emergency services for free, free education, and jobs they would die to have (yes, the ones the "poor" in our country refuse to do).
      So now I have to pay for more people's healthcare? I can't tell them how to live their lives but they get to rule mine by stealing my hard earned money? Nothing could be more fair than each person paying for their own lives. What was slavery in the US but the taking of the labor of one man and giving it to another by force?

      June 27, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
    • REALpatriot

      Turn off Fox News, PLEASE!!!!!

      June 27, 2012 at 10:38 pm |
    • diamond

      Cheer for the Cowboys, you have no idea what you're talking about,

      June 28, 2012 at 3:22 am |
  8. me

    Let me spell it out for you folks crying about this being a "one-sided" article – it's NOT A NEWS ARTICLE. It's a blog. A blog. Have you seen the kind of things Fox does under the blog flag on Fox Nation? Give me a break. I guess your argument is that you didn't realize it was a blog, but maybe you're just dumb?

    June 27, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
  9. Yakobi

    Yeah, that's neat. But there are no gods or goddesses. If Wendell Potter feels so strongly about giving free health care for poor people, then HE should pay for it. Why does it cleanse his conscience to make ME pay for it?

    June 27, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
    • Ryan in Texas

      You hit the nail on the head. No one stops him from donating his money.

      June 27, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • independentlyowned

      Also an atheist, but for Obamacare. Why should you pay for it? If you really looked at every single thing your taxes went to, you'd probably be against most of it. But you don't get to pick and choose what your taxes pay for. Maybe come up with some better solutions, like higher taxes on fast food and junk food. The point is, universal healthcare is the right thing to do.

      June 27, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
  10. hwatt

    ok, but Jesus also did NOT demand money in return as doctors today do, He probably took donations like most churches. What the issue is going to be about is who pays the bills to all these doctors demanding 6 figures. Now you could take this argument to the doctors and say 'Jesus worked for donations, you should too' and we'll see how it goes.

    June 27, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
  11. Mona

    "Obamacare" as it is labeled, isn't perfect...but, it is a step in the right direction. Poor, poor baby repugnants, they say that they didn't have a say in the formation, but the truth is they did EVERYTHING to shoot it down. They don't want the middle class
    average joe to succeed, they want them to fail. They don't want health care, education and oh, "what's the third thing"...uh, uh
    oh yeah a decent job with a decent salary to feed & clothe their family. Enough said?????

    June 27, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
    • Yakobi

      Mona, what your peabrain apparently can't grasp is the middle class can't succeed if it's burdened by ever-increasing taxes imposed by democrats who want to provide fraud-ridden social services to every poor person and illegal immigrant. They want to turn the U.S.A. into a third world country whose debt exceeds its GDP.

      June 27, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
  12. Bob

    "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."

    There is no better way to say it.

    June 27, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
    • Priorities First!

      Come on now, people have access to health care just by going to a hospital when they are sick. I can't tell you how many crack or heroin addicts I have seen flipping out in an emargency room bed while Insured patients quietly wait their turn in the emergency waiting room. There is compassion available, just let’s start by forcing them to pay for the health care first. Drugs, Cell Phones, Cable TV, and Internet services are some of life’s necessities.

      June 27, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
  13. Erick

    Jesus did not advocate for government controlled health care. Quite the contrary – Jesus advocated that the Church provide services to the needy. Not government. Regardless... Jesus came to redeem the soul of mankind..... not to advocate for Obamacare. I like how the story neglects the abortion services provisions in the health care law. Anyone care to suggest that Jesus would support that?

    June 27, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
    • sally

      And are the churches stepping up to provide health care for needy families? Hmmm?

      June 27, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • Bob

      Federal Dollars are not used for abortion services. Stop being a parrot and read the actual regulations. Furthermore, some abortions are medically required. The life of the mother is just as important as the life of the unborn. Finally, I don't think my pastor can perform heart surgeries. So no, Churches cannot provide health care, but they certainly can advocate that the so-called "richest" country should not have to treat its patients in animal stalls.

      June 27, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
    • hippie power 69

      yes eric, i think that is between me and jesus and what if i didn't believe in jesus? just because you say so i have to have the same beliefs you do? that is not the way it is. just mind your own business and i'll mind mine when it comes to how many and if or when i have children.

      June 27, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  14. Reality

    How much money would the following save the US taxpayers ?: And how many “souls” would be saved?

    Saving 1.5 billion lost Muslims:
    There never were and never will be any angels i.e. no Gabriel, no Islam and therefore no more koranic-driven acts of horror and terror LIKE 9/11.

    – One trillion dollars over the next several years as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan will end.

    – Eighteen billion dollars/yr to Pakistan will stop.

    – Four billion dollars/yr to Egypt will end.

    Saving 2 billion lost Christians including the Mormons:
    There were never any bodily resurrections and there will never be any bodily resurrections i.e. No Easter, no Christianity!!!

    – The Mormon empire will now become taxable as will all Christian "religions" and evangelical non-profits since there is no longer any claim to being a tax-exempt religion.

    – Saving 15.5 million Orthodox followers of Judaism:
    Abraham and Moses never existed.

    – Four billion dollars/yr to Israel saved.

    – All Jewish sects and non-profits will no longer be tax exempt.

    Now all we need to do is convince these 3.5+ billion global and local citizens that they have been conned all these centuries Time for a YouTube,Twitter and FaceBook campaign!!!!

    BOTTOM LINE: SAID SAVINGS WOULD PAY FOR UNIVERSAL HEALTH CARE !!!!
    (and put a dent in the budget deficit)

    June 27, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      If churches paid taxes, no one would go to church. Why bother?

      June 27, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • diamond

      You know what you're talking about!

      June 28, 2012 at 3:23 am |
  15. Jacques Strappe, World Famous French Ball Juggler

    He looks like the warden from Shawshank.

    June 27, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  16. Roy

    Christianity is idiocy, regardless of its adherents' politics.

    June 27, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • Harlon Katz

      Maybe if we were not providing free care and other services to the 10-20 million illegal immigrants in this country, there would be more than enough money for services for the citizens of this country.

      June 27, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      "we were not providing free care and other services to the 10-20 million illegal immigrants"

      Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead.
      Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion, and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
      And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, `Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.' Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?" He said, "The one who showed mercy on him." And Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."

      June 27, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  17. independentlyowned

    Unfortunately, if people are really following their Christian beliefs in terms of healthcare, they'll also want to outlaw abortion and contraception. Crowded cities fur to over population and low income mothers with 7 kids they can't feed is a HUGE healthcare problem, in addition to a general societal problem.

    June 27, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • independentlyowned

      due to over population** (not fur, oops)

      June 27, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      How exactly would outlawing contraception and abortion lower the birthrate, champ?

      June 27, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  18. CEL1

    Hallelujah, Brother !! You have see the light !! Proud of you. It was a huge mistake to ever let healthcare become a commodity.

    June 27, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • hippie power 69

      amen. do we pay the police to come to our homes, or firemen, no of course not. this should be a not for profit industry. healthcare insurance should not make money off of our illness. this is the only country where you could lose your home due to medical bills or an illness you could not possibly pay for. that is wrong. that is why fdr made social security and later lbj did medicare, so old people did not have to work until they died or couldn't work anymore. ask your grand parents or great grand parents what that was like. it wasn't a pretty picture. this is coming and i hope i live long enough to see it. universal healthcare. don't you see what big business has done? they have made us taking care of the lest of us "socialism". people, please, educate yourself to what is going on in this country today. you are just a job away from no healthcare. don't let "them" do this to us.

      June 27, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  19. doasisaydo

    I gave up on America as a christian nation long ago. I do however believe that there are people that carry a good conscience and hopefully people like these will see the sin in just letting people die because they are poor or uninsured. Karma has a way of coming back to get you. In a few years the cost of healthcare coverage will be so out of hand the corporations will stop providing it as a "benefit" and the masses that so eloquently state how they hate Obama-care or "socialized" medicine will beg for it. Hopefully when (not if) the time comes a democrat will be in office and a democrat majority congress so that we can as a country finally install a universal healthcare program for our citizens. You don't realize how important a glass of water is until you are dying of thirst. Shamefully many of our citizens feel they have more than enough water and aren't thinking about what if there is a drought, or if water becomes like oil, a high priced comodity not accessible to all. Selfishness has never been a positive trait. We as a country will have to hit rock bottom before we finally realize that no matter what color our skin is, we all need the same things to survive. Rome too was once a world power and they thought they were invincible. Well...

    June 27, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      "I gave up on America as a christian nation long ago." You didn't notice our Crusade against the Infidels has resumed? Don't worry, the crosses are still burning brightly in the South and all across Kansas and Arizona. I think we even burned a witch a couple of years ago.

      June 27, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
  20. Shante's mom

    This is the first article I have read in a long time that get's to the true meaning of being Christian! Our health care for each individual is far more important than anything else the Supreme Court can vote on. Let's just hope and pray they do the right thing for all instead of thier party line.

    June 27, 2012 at 4:07 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.