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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. M.E.

    Single payer medicine is the only way forward. Even Thatcher Era-style care is better than nothing.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:26 pm |
  2. Fiona

    This is such stilted, loaded (mis)reporting. To front-load the story by saying people were being treated in animal stalls, and only later point out it was a free clinic held in a county fairground (rural area, large crowd...likely the only suitable place that passed health and safety requirements for such an event), and to not mention that many if not most of those taking advantage of the free medical care were likely farm workers and not here legally...is beyond poor reporting. It's dishonest. It's political propaganda.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
    • JM

      You know what sounds like crazy (1930s-style) propaganda? Your assumption.

      "Of course it couldn't be 'real' white Americans."

      "Of course not."

      eyes wide shut

      June 27, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
    • Steve

      Completely agree with Fiona.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:27 pm |
    • Chris

      Shhhh! Liberal media at it's best.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:27 pm |
    • Carolyn

      Fiona, where did you get the idea that "likely they were not here legally"? There are millions of people born in the US who do not have proper health care.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:30 pm |
    • JE

      Feel better now? It helps to stick one's head in a hole or just make up stories to make reality disappear.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:33 pm |
    • Ruby

      political propaganda... as is your biased posting. Such a pity that such issues cannot be debated on their merits.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:36 pm |
    • Doug

      My Grandfather came here from Lebenon legally and had nothing. Worked his tail off for his kids and their kids could have a better opportunity. If you want it, you will work for it that is the plain and simple truth.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:36 pm |
    • freeb

      BS. You're making assumptions.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:38 pm |
    • Dr Jones

      Fiona, I don't like to get personal here, but the contempt for humanity that you express is frightening. Health care in a barn is logical and acceptable because there were so many people who needed care?! How long would Jesus have needed to beg you for three fish?

      June 27, 2012 at 8:39 pm |
    • Fiona

      @Dr. jones (so-called): It was not in a "barn", but at a fairground. Do you live in a rural area? have you ever? Do you even know what the agricultural building at a fairground looks like? No? It's not a 24/7 place for animals. When there is no event on, it's perfectly clean.m when there was a huge wildfire in my county some years ago, that's where the firefighters stayed.

      If you put on a clinic in a rural area, where 1k people are going to show up, you need to have bathrooms, shelter, potable water. Where the he ll do you think that clinic could have been set up that would have been safe for all those people?

      June 27, 2012 at 8:56 pm |
    • Dr Jones

      Fiona, this is a forum, not my resume, so I used a nickname, not a professional appellation. Mocking that seems a bit petty. Anyway, an agricultural building at a fair is a fancy barn. The fair grounds in Syracuse have some of the classic best of them, and I'd prefer not having medical care in any. Thank you for your discussion, we're at an impasse. I enjoy paying taxes, I enjoy sharing the wealth of our great country. Despite our health care issues, we have the world's richest poor and I'm happy for that, not threatened by it.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:32 pm |
  3. Asturiano

    SHAME,SHAME, SHAME... the wealthiest country in the world spends billions for B2 jets, threw $1trillion at a bogus war in Iraq but lets its citizens die for lack of care.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
    • Mary

      You forgot the tens of billions spent each and every year on illegals. They never worry about paying for,healthcare.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
    • Carolyn

      Mary, where did you get the idea that "illegals do not have to pay for health care?" I think you have been listening to Rush Limbaugh or something ...

      June 27, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
    • JE

      Or the billions spent helping Christian organizations.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:34 pm |
  4. Eastender

    I go to a local community health clinic where prices are extremely low, and the care is outstanding. I just can't imagine anyone being treated in a barn, and would imagine that could be an exaggeration. I live in a low income community, yet I've seen some of the best health care around, and some of the kindest doctors who give out all the free samples you need. I guess I've been blessed.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:21 pm |
    • Dr. Kurt

      I've been a volunteer for Volunteers in Medicine for 12 years, I've also volunteered at a warming center and have done Homeless Connect for three years.

      The locations have been a standalone clinic, a churcn and a convention center respectively. I've never heard of anyone treating patients in animal stalls. I grew up in a farm and if we're talking pigs, horses or cows you wouldn't pass basic sanitation.

      I think it's a tragedy we don't have a single payer program in this country but have personally never witnessed what was described in this article.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:30 pm |
    • freeb

      I witness it daily on my rounds. I have no idea where you're living, Dr. Kurt.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:41 pm |
    • Fiona

      Yes, Eastender, I live in a heavily agricultural county that has a large population living below the poverty line, including a huge part of the Latino community. There is so much free medical care readily available for these folks that it's easier to get appointments at the free clinics than it is for an insured person who pays her bills to get on the books at the regular medical center. People even complain that it's too hard to get their kids in to the (free)clinic, so the county sends out mobile clinics. I, on the other hand, drive an hour to see a doctor. The truth is the people who really suffer under our current medical care system are the working middle class and the self employed. Health insurance can be unaffordable, so many otherwise responsible working people go without.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
  5. Michele

    Cheryl – read more closely instead of reacting. The "stalls" are extreme but simply a metaphor for the fact that millions do not have adequate health care nor access to it. And why there is a need for you to "volunteer" in the first place, though we appreciate your doing so.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:21 pm |
    • Dr. Kurt

      Not to belabor the point but it didn't seem to me they were using animal stalls as a metaphor but as a fact.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:31 pm |
    • T. Wagner

      Spoken like a true Democrat. The sky is falling run chicken lttle run........

      June 27, 2012 at 8:38 pm |
    • Ruby

      Dr. Kurt, God bless you for the good that you do. The country would be a better place with more like you.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:44 pm |
    • Fiona

      Michele, it's obvious you did not read this rubbish article. Look up the definition of "metaphor". Then read the article. The clinic used as a (melo)dramatic example was held in a fairground where, reportedly, the livestock showgrounds were used to shelter from the rain. Next, look up "hyperbole" and "propaganda".

      June 27, 2012 at 8:48 pm |
  6. happyfrenchman

    You know... CNN is a little late to the party. They have been playing devils advocate for two years and now, that the decision is already in, they come out with this piece, that should have been only one of many, many pieces that could have been written. Now they are all pro health care... they sicken me.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
    • oodoodanoo

      During the actual debate, CNN was smart enough to report honestly, but to cowardly to actually do it.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:26 pm |
  7. platypusfriend

    He was appalled because he went to a free clinic. That's the real point. Have you ever been to a free clinic (military or a non-US country)? It's appalling. The experience at free clinics is appalling.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
    • Eastender

      I haven't experienced that. The clinic I go to is clean, staffed with some great doctors (who donate their time), and have helped me with my diabetes (I go every 3 months). The government provides me with free education, testing, needles, and insulin (if available – sometimes I have to wait). Because they know it's gonna cost them a heck of a lot more if I have to be hospitalized. People really need to do their research on the programs available. Best.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
    • platypusfriend

      @Eastender I'm glad you have had good experiences but, when I was in the military, the mere concept of "free" is what polluted the system. Everyone wanted something for free, and discretion was not encouraged; consequently, doctors tended towards indifference and suspecting malingering. How would your diabetes care be better/worse, if you had a typical insurance plan? Perhaps you are an exception but, for the vast majority of responsible Americans, free healthcare would marginalize their experience to suit the irresponsibility of the lower classes. Jesus' whole point about compassion, as I understand it, was that it should come from the individual, as free will. Maybe I'm wrong.

      June 28, 2012 at 1:56 am |
  8. Nathan

    What's this? A real Christian? Here in our country? In our time?

    June 27, 2012 at 8:19 pm |
    • J2

      One who actually reads the Bible? Unheard of!

      June 27, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
  9. Ahmed

    welcome to free market economy.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
  10. bp

    I can only imagine the number of death threats and hate Emails this guy must be getting from the conservative types who, at one of the first GOP Presidential debates, cheered at the prospect of an uninsured person dying on the road for lack of treatment. It's all about their "culture of life" of course.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
    • JM

      Scary. That kind of hate only comes from the pit of hell.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
    • JM

      They obviously haven't read Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan (who didn't let the guy die on the side of the road).

      June 27, 2012 at 8:24 pm |
    • Chris

      Yeah b/c all republicans are that way. Grow up BP. Stop stereotyping! YOU ARE THE PROBLEM.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
    • DCPam

      I was thinking the same thing...wow...this guy must get a lot of death threats.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:26 pm |
    • JE

      Chris – He is only talking about the ones who laughed hysterically when the story was told or who react happily to what most people would consider sad/depressing news (about the plight of people who need help)....or cheer when something crazy is said.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:37 pm |
  11. Jack

    Thank you Mr. Potter for being willing to at least address your conscience.

    It comes down to this, when the hostipal population are more and more charity cases and hostipals are asking for pre-payment and insurance are determining how much medical procedures cost. It is no longer health care, it is the wealthycare.

    I am a conservative and the baby boomer generation, my generation, have wasted our wealth and now they want healthcare, retirement and all their play toys. My answer to them is get off their Harley's and get back to work and pay off the debt that they have incurred.

    I have since my early voting career fought for financial responsibility, these Johnny Come Lately's, conversatives that voted for President Johnson's Great Society have no one to blame but themselves. At 65 I agree with Mr. Potter.

    Tea Party conservative are nothing more and large group whiners, who throwing a temper tantrum because they can't have it their way.

    Mr. Potter, Thank you

    June 27, 2012 at 8:17 pm |
  12. Chris

    If you think the new health care law that was passed will solve the issues mentioned above, you are wrong. The current health care laws we have are horrible and the new ones aren't better. Wake up people! As long as we let lawyers run this country(not implying obama you liberal pigs) we are never going to be able to fix the problems with health care. Solution is to close the door to law schools for about 5 years.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
    • happyfrenchman

      You are totally wrong... either ignorant, or misinformed... more likely too ignorant to realize how misinformed you are.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
    • Moby49

      The profit motive is deadly when making more profit means refusing treatment. The lawyers are only peripheral no matter how hard you try to pin the blame on them.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
    • Mark Baird

      And if you close the doors of law school for five years this solves the problem how? Walk me through this to the solution of getting everyone insured.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
  13. papa

    But haven't you heard, giving uninsured people anything more than a medical checkup inside an animal stall in a fairground would be the socialistic end of the world ! Rush Limbaugh and Fox News could not be wrong about this, could they ? Pretty sad that a group that normally goes to third world countries to set up free health clinics had to be called in to do one for uninsured people in Virginia USA, just a stone's throw from the nation's capital. Welcome to America, where the Haves have it, and the other 99% can just suck it

    June 27, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
    • CB

      I think more than 1% of people in this country have health insurance, especially those who are here legally. If we got rid of the 12 million + illegal aliens that are draining our resources (schools, hospitals, jails, etc), we would be in a better position to take care of our own citizens. Of course, we need the agriculture industries to stop illegally giving them jobs so that the incentive to illegally enter our country is removed. That in turn would also create more jobs for our own people that are out of work. Sure, we'll have to pay more for our produce, but I think it's worth it in the long run.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
  14. Steve

    You don't see Canadians receiving medical care in animal stalls, do you? Single Payer System is the only way to go. Until that happens, it will only get worse. Unfortunately, lobbyists now own Congress, and will do everything than can to prevent a single payer system. Our healthcare system is an international joke, except we're the only ones NOT laughing. Get rid of the republicans, and that will be a first step in fixing our system.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:15 pm |
  15. Moby49

    I wonder what would have happened if any of the tobacco stooges ever came to a similar awakening and preached the truth. How many people would have been saved from a painful, ugly death.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:15 pm |
  16. SpuriousD

    Why would a person of "faith" choose a profession in health insurance to begin with? I'm not impressed.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:15 pm |
    • J2

      Why would a person of faith choose any profession other than "ministry"?

      June 27, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
    • DCPam

      I think a lot of people find themselves in jobs. Most people have bills and you start where you start.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
    • Hamrick

      Paul was a tent-maker. Lydia sold clothing. there is no sacred and secular divide. God created the world and everything in it.
      Colossians 3:22 "Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men,"

      June 27, 2012 at 8:35 pm |
    • JE

      Jesus was a carpenter. Matthew was a tax collector. Luke was a doctor.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:38 pm |
  17. Claudia, Houston, Tx

    Ask yourself "What would God do for his people" and not what your political party ask of you.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
  18. MC in TX

    Nice to read an article like this. At least here are still a few conservatives left who care about there country.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:13 pm |
    • J2

      Amen

      June 27, 2012 at 8:21 pm |
  19. GIUK

    This story shows us all what millions of past Americans have suffered and died to build in the US. Now, get out there and wave your little flag on the Fourth of July.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
  20. Cheryl Jefferies

    I've volunteered as an RN in free health clinics and I resent this article! We treated our patients with great dignity, had the use of an excellent facility, highly skilled doctors and advanced practice nurses were there, as were translators and social workers; and we helped them find a way back into the regular health care system. This is pure trash! And, the author knows it!

    June 27, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
    • J2

      You "volunteered" in a health clinic. He worked in one of the largest insurance companies (and understood how the insurance game worked) and you are the expert? Alrighty then.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
    • Spaz

      Did you even read the article Cheryl? I suggest you go back and read then try to comprehend what was written. Thanks.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:15 pm |
    • Mball572

      What you just wrote makes no sense.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:17 pm |
    • omaromar

      Pull your head out of your keester, pal. I did not witness the clinic in this story, but I have seen "Free" clinics and street medicine, and I am sooo glad I get to come home to Canada. The way in which the poor and poorest are treated under the U.S. system should make you stop, and find a proper way to care for people. Your health care system is truly an example of have vs have not. It is pathetic. Cheryl Jefferies, you have obviously lived in a guilded cage with rose colored windows, you have NO idea what you are saying.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
    • Moby49

      I am so happy that you were able to provide better care for the indigent. However, I have seen scenes similar to this myself so all your fake outrage wont change the reality I saw.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:19 pm |
    • Steve

      wow, talk about missing the point. maybe get over yourself and look at the big picture of what is happening in this country of 50 million that don't have access to health care.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
    • mary Jane

      Cheryl, I thank you for volunteering in a free health clinic. It tells me that your heart is the right lace And it is nice to hear that some free health clinics have excellent conditions. BUT would you want your family to have to rely on a free health clinic, if you were laid off and couldn't afford private health insurance? Also, you weren't at that clinic in Virginia. How can you sound so sure that it isn't true?

      June 27, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
    • MC in TX

      I'm reminded of the story of the Russian empress (or maybe princess) who traveled through town seeing prosperous peasants, not realizing that her corrupt advisers had hidden the misery of the real peasants from her. Many of us fail to realize that we live in very segregated cities. We live and work in middle class areas and the few poor people that we encounter we treat well and tell ourselves how caring we are. The reality, of course, is that there are large parts of our cities that we never visit, places where the poor suffer and lack many of the most basic services we take for granted.

      The fact that you have been to a clinic that provides good services to anyone who comes in does not mean that everybody is receiving these same services. There is a vast and increasing number of people who have almost no access to medical care unless they are literally about to die. Even if you choose not to do anything to help your fellow man, it is shameful to be deliberately this ignorant.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
    • DAL

      Cheryl, I think you missed the point of this article. I didn't take it as an attack on free clinics, but a condemnation of a health care industry, and a society/government, that forces the impoverished to have to resort to 'free clinics' whenever and wherever they can find them. That said, thank you for volunteering your time and services to those in need.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
    • Joscar

      Cheryl, thank you for your volunteer efforts but you must realize that the type of clinic you work at is not available in many areas of the country. I also don't think that the purpose of the article was to say that this was some kind of makeshift, fly by night operation the man witnessed. Your clinic is the ideal while most groups trying to offer these services are making do with what they have.
      If you came upon an accident and saw a doctor helping an injured person would you resent that because they should be doing it in a pristine facility?

      June 27, 2012 at 8:30 pm |
    • mariner I

      In expressing your dissent, you seem to forget this is not about you. No one cares about your emotional response to this article. They care about the fact that Potter was taking the time to articulate the reality of our present HealthCare Crisis. The fact that people have vitually no access to clinics. You are doing a disservice to your own community by denegrating Potter at the expense of distracting from the message and social awareness that he has generated. While you may be proud of your profession, clearly they are not teaching RNs diplomacy. As it relates the importance of the message that Potter is trying to deliver, your commentary
      looks just like an opportunity to vent. It is doubtful that your personal efforts in your profession, would rise to the level of being worthy of emulation. Those who believe in the true value of service wouldn't write a commentary like yours which is petty and self serving. In the vernacular of the day, Get A Life!

      June 27, 2012 at 8:35 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.