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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. labmom64

    to the physician who said he would resign his practice if the Affordable Healthcare Act (it's NOT Obamacare duh) passed the Supreme Court , all of your patients would like to see that resignation. There is an old saying, "Physician, heal thyself". it's people like YOU, dr.s insurance co. republicans bankers, etc. who think they have the RIGHT to have great healthcare because of their pocketbooks, guess what, you people are the finest example of our broken WELFARE system because you get yours because of us, the llitle people. WE pay for your right to have great healthcare

    July 1, 2012 at 1:08 am |
  2. THE LAWS OF NATURE

    * You're still in school you mothers!
    * Which did you choose?
    * 1) Belief
    * 2) Pretty junk disbelief
    * 3) Plain ugly disbelief
    * Answer 1, 2 or 3 & give a very brief reason.
    * As warned, you're still in school you mothers!

    June 30, 2012 at 11:47 pm |
    • dumb mother

      3) I never ever did my homework. Lousy parenting.

      June 30, 2012 at 11:50 pm |
    • The Corrector

      1) Belief was always necessary. The Laws of Nature were always necessary.

      June 30, 2012 at 11:52 pm |
    • THE LAWS OF NATURE

      Brownie point for The Corrector!
      Have you been earning your brownie points?

      June 30, 2012 at 11:56 pm |
  3. THE LAWS OF NATURE

    * THE LAWS OF NATURE PREVAIL OVER YOU DUMB MOTHERS!

    June 30, 2012 at 11:06 pm |
    • dumb mother

      What if I don't want the laws of nature?

      June 30, 2012 at 11:58 pm |
  4. THE LAWS OF NATURE

    If you wanna keep it dodgy, then you're doomed!

    June 30, 2012 at 10:50 pm |
    • Mafia Don

      I tried to keep it dodgy, but you just wiped me out!

      June 30, 2012 at 10:52 pm |
  5. THE LAWS OF NATURE

    What did you create?
    What did you destroy?

    June 30, 2012 at 9:38 pm |
    • Mafia Don

      I created trouble!
      I tried to destroy faith!

      June 30, 2012 at 9:40 pm |
  6. THE LAWS OF NATURE

    DID YOU TRY TO DESTROY THE LAWS OF NATURE?
    So you forgot what you were up against or you actually knew what you were up against!
    Most forgot what they were up against!
    THE LAWS OF NATURE PREVAIL EVERY TIME!

    June 30, 2012 at 9:29 pm |
    • Mafia Don

      VERY POWERFUL LAWS OF NATURE TOO!

      June 30, 2012 at 9:30 pm |
    • Mafia Don

      These may well be my final words with the laws of nature hanging about!

      June 30, 2012 at 9:35 pm |
  7. dumb mother

    It's a very sneaky twilight zone for us dumb mothers!

    June 30, 2012 at 9:13 pm |
    • Mafia Don

      Don't I know it dumb mother!
      This twilight zone is very depressing!
      Of course I cry a lot!

      June 30, 2012 at 9:16 pm |
    • The Corrector

      Yet more confessions from dumb mothers!

      June 30, 2012 at 9:21 pm |
  8. Dave

    It's time we left you disbelievers to sweat on your own poison thoughts, poison words & poison deeds.
    We're running a detox program with the Church because of your poisons.
    Google(detox kits) just to prove how easy it is.
    Whilst we detox you disbelievers out of our system, expect your contact with the Church to be minimal.

    June 30, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
  9. Jack

    Hello. Everyone is cordially invited to visit ... thestarofkaduri.com

    June 30, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  10. UK Dave

    I now unleash MY BOMBPROOF PROMISES against all dysfunction!
    Dare you pit your broken promises against MY BOMBPROOF PROMISES?
    I go with the flow with bombproof promises!

    June 30, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
    • Mafia Don

      Is the sky falling in on us already?

      June 30, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • Ted

      UKD, get back on your meds.

      June 30, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
    • The Corrector

      Seems your sky is falling in you already Mafia Don!
      ALL HAIL BOMBPROOF PROMISES!

      June 30, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
    • The Corrector

      Don't you like bombproof promises Ted?
      Here at the Department of Corrections, it's;
      ALL HAIL BOMBPROOF PROMISES!

      June 30, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
  11. Mike Blackadder

    I wonder if the wait times in the free outdoor clinic was less than 4 hours which would be pretty decent compared with socialized medicine in Canada.

    It is good to recognize in your heart the injustice of many people being in adequately cared for in a rich country. However, it is equally important that leaders and advocates maintain good judgement along with compassion in order to reach a more just health system.

    Socialized medicine has merits and I don't discount the argument that there are areas where the American system should broaden socialization of medicine in some areas. However, the whole notion of being converted to a political solution only because you recognize a problem with the status quo verges on senseless. In Canada I have a friend whose elderly dog jumped off the couch one morning and yelped and started limping around. He took the dog to the vet that morning and he was diagnosed with having a torn ACL. Two days later the dog was booked for surgery and a couof thousand dollars later

    June 30, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • Mike Blackadder

      ... that is a couple of thousand dollars later the dog was all fixed up.

      Meanwhile human beings in Canada who pay thousands of dollars per year into socialized medicine (even families earning combined income less than 30K) and many also pay thousands into insurance for additional coverage (drugs, dental, etc), yet a 30 year old mother who is incapacitated due to major shoulder injury has to wait up to 18 months for surgery and only after writing pleading letters for a doctor to take on her case.

      The sad truth is that health care system of animals is the envy of [poorly implemented] socialized medicine. At least Csnsdisns are fortunate enough to be able to go State side when they actually need health care. There is a real consequence of rationed health care under inefficient and politically influenced beaurocrats.

      June 30, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  12. UK Dave

    * BOMB-PROOF PROMISES!
    * We promise to get healthy!
    * We promise to stay healthy!
    * We promise to stay healthy enough!
    * Are you now into BOMB-PROOF PROMISES?

    June 30, 2012 at 9:12 am |
    • D Gill

      A very inspired and though provoking article.
      The One point that was not correct was that America is the richest nation on earth. China is the riches nation and please remember that the USA owes China around 15 trillion dollars. The only way for the USA not to pay China back what it owes is to go to war with them. I wonder what they will choose War or Pay China back? I think Russia should relax about the missile defence shield because the USA wants to be in a possition to attack China not Russia.

      June 30, 2012 at 9:47 am |
  13. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    June 30, 2012 at 8:55 am |
    • JESilverstein

      Prayer may changes things for the one who prays, but it won't change things for people who can't afford medical care, and it won't change anything for anyone else, either. If we know people by their works, then we need to ask and see how they take action to help others–action, not silent words only they and God can hear. I have a saying that I much prefer: God helps those who help themselves–and others, too. P

      June 30, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • nope

      @jes
      nope

      June 30, 2012 at 9:51 pm |
  14. UK Dave

    BOMB-PROOF PROMISES!
    We promise to get healthy!
    We promise to stay healthy!
    We promise to stay healthy enough!
    Are you now into BOMB-PROMISES?

    June 30, 2012 at 8:51 am |
    • Mafia Don

      I CAN ONLY ADMIRE YOUR BOMB-PROOF PROMISES UK Dave!
      You should be King of this whole stinkin' planet!
      You probably are already!
      CHRIST IS COMING TO POWER MUCH EARLIER THAN EXPECTED!

      June 30, 2012 at 8:52 am |
    • UK Dave

      Oh Lord over this twisted planet!
      We got Mafia endorsement from Mafia Don!
      Celebration is in order!
      IT IS UP TO US TO KEEP THESE BOMB-PROOF PROMISES!
      How much longer do you want Mafia Don?

      June 30, 2012 at 8:56 am |
    • Mafia Don

      Just enough time please UK Dave!

      June 30, 2012 at 9:08 am |
  15. Reality

    Only for the new members of this blog:

    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)

    The door is wide open for other ideas on how to pay for Obamacare.

    June 30, 2012 at 8:04 am |
    • .....

      Bull sh it alert, avoid reading and hit report abuse on all reality garbage

      June 30, 2012 at 8:54 am |
  16. SoldierOfConscience

    This guy wants big gubmint's paws on his healthcare?

    be careful what you wish for.. you may actually get it

    June 29, 2012 at 8:37 pm |
  17. UK Dave

    I duly note;
    I'm clean as a whistle in everybody's books!

    June 29, 2012 at 8:34 pm |
  18. Mafia Don

    Chaos destoyed people like me already!
    Did chaos destroy your way of thinking?

    June 29, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
    • UK Dave

      WE'RE IN !!!!
      We extract confessions with Sodium Pentathol!
      Are you happy to confess under Sodium Pentathol Mafia Don?

      June 29, 2012 at 8:19 pm |
    • Mafia Don

      @UK Dave
      Because chaos destroyed people like me already, then I'm happy to confess under Sodium Pentathol!
      Because chaos destroyed people like me, maybe I'm happy to confess anyway!

      June 29, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
    • UK Dave

      @ALL !!!!
      THE SHIELD OF TRUTH COMES CRASHING IN !!!!

      June 29, 2012 at 8:27 pm |
    • The Corrector

      Gosh!
      This has been a very powerful nite already!
      Amen at last!

      June 29, 2012 at 8:30 pm |
  19. UK Dave

    Did you junk yourself?

    June 29, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
    • Mafia Don

      It pains me to say;
      Yes, we junked ourselves Lord UK Dave!
      We the Mafia know exactly who you are Lord UK Dave & you are clean as a whistle in our books!

      June 29, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
  20. atheist@heart

    Can we make amends?
    It's all about amendments!
    The correct amendments are comin'!
    We must make amends!

    June 29, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
    • UK Dave

      These are precisely the words I wanted from atheists everywhere!
      I think you're being blessed atheist@heart!

      June 29, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
    • UK Dave

      These are precisely the words I wanted to hear from atheists too Lord UK Dave!
      Welcome to the Correctional System atheist@heart!

      June 29, 2012 at 7:07 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.