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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. tony

    The GOP's "boot-straps" arrogance is precisely what Lincoln (GOP, himself) was talking about when he said, "If at last the experiment should fail, the failure will not be caused by defeat at the hands of some foreign enemy, 'some transatlantic military giant.' No, the danger, if ever it comes, must come from within, 'must spring up amongst us.'"

    June 27, 2012 at 8:37 pm |
    • Sharp

      Lincoln & Reagan were both men of compassion & honor. They would both disown this party of cruel & greedy monsters that the Republicans have become.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
    • carol

      compassion is NOT a word in the current corporate environment. only thing they know is greed!

      June 27, 2012 at 9:06 pm |
  2. Peikovianyi

    Can I have your car? Because I really need a car. It's only fair.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:36 pm |
    • redtapehater111

      lol seriously! these liberals are on crack

      June 27, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
    • IceMan

      Don't be an a$$. If you are ever down on your luck and need some help from society, you'll be singing a different song. And I hope when you do, you will recall these short-sighted words.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:47 pm |
    • carol

      and why do you need a car?

      June 27, 2012 at 9:12 pm |
  3. asis76

    I used to be that Doctors were like teachers they did if for the fact that they cared. The point is that they aren't doing it for that reason anymore not all but a lot are doing it for the money. It's called GREED when you add in the Insurance companies then you know who's into it GREED. GREED is the key to equation and both the left and right are playing up this big fiasco of BS for what or what reason. GREED! It should go back to the old days and work with the people create a better system that doesn't involved bureaucrats and these insane clown posse that is running everything in Washington.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:36 pm |
    • redtapehater111

      docs = not at all greedy.... they make less per hour than teachers

      June 27, 2012 at 8:46 pm |
  4. scoobypoo

    This is why presidential elections really do matter. I wish the youth vote would get the message.
    The president picks the next supreme court justices, and that's what makes the real difference in this country.

    If not for Bush's two terms, we'd have a less conservative court and wouldn't have to worry about them undoing healthcare and proclaiming corporations are people.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:35 pm |
  5. Chris

    Instead of forcing millions to pay so much money for healthcare why don't these rich healthcare people simply lower the charges for all things medical? I've seen nurses who could not even tell you your blood pressure and yet they make thousands more than the average wage earner. Lower all medical costs 50 % or more and let people pay their own way. The answer is not in taxing hard working people to pay for every one else.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:34 pm |
    • IceMan

      Not sure you're getting it, Chris. If you are for the free market without regulations then you get what you get. Forcing the industries to charge half as much is just as controlling as a universal system.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
    • Carole

      50% off a million dollars isn't too much of a discount. I wouldn't call that a solution. We really are all just a moment away from losing everything.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:52 pm |
    • carol

      i recently was diagnosed and treated for both colon and ovarian cancer. the bills for this was over $175,000. LUCKILY i had health ins and disability ins. the health ins took care of everything. the disability ins AFTER taxes (shees FED tax my disability AND my unemployment!!!) kept me going......AFTER one of the biggest banks in the WoRLD terminated my contract in the MIDDLE of my CHEMO treatments(after PROMISING me i would have work).....YES JPMC...Jamie Dimon....the ULTIMATE banker of today....his organization.....terminated my recently renewed contract because i had cancer and couldn't PRODUCE for his company!

      What a leader !! and what an example his organization provides! makes me sick that this is what our AMERICAN corps get away with... oh....and let's not forget....JAMIE ...just how many jobs have you sent overseas?

      June 27, 2012 at 8:57 pm |
  6. Sharp

    I personally think that this cruel & inhuman reaction to Health Care Reform is the rock that our country will founder on & sink. I have never personally been a hater but this has made me hate the Republicans & everything they stand for. I will never reconcile with the party of cruelty & greed. I will hate them to the end of my days.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:34 pm |
    • redtapehater111

      Dems=party of communist promises and no economy

      June 27, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
  7. redtapehater111

    With Obamacare, Signa wins, providers and patients lose! Btw, did anyone else make note of the BMI of the woman in the picture??? This is the REAL healthcare crisis... our spending would drop and our outcomes would be fantastic if everyone would get off their ass and eat right!

    June 27, 2012 at 8:34 pm |
    • Sharp

      Blame the victims, an especially vicious response.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:36 pm |
    • redtapehater111

      LOL.. victim? Is anyone responsible for themselves? Kleen-ex called they said "thanks for keeping us in business" you whiny liberal cry baby! The fact that you implicitly call someone a "victim" despite the fact that they are dealing with THE CONSEQUENCES OF THEIR OWN ACTIONS tells me your a communist liberal who cries about everything and stands to whittle away at everything AMERICA used to stand for! Go ahead and come back at me with some cry-baby response and attempt at being witty... It will probably bring me another laugh.

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

      Do you know the woman in the picture? Granted she looks obese but do you really know her story and her health history. She looks very much like my aunt who had weighed close to 120 her entire life until her last two years of battling breast cancer ballooned her weight grotesquely.
      Maybe this woman eats too much (many Americans do)....or maybe her weight is a symptom of an underlying health problem for which she can't afford treatment. I don't know and neither do you.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
    • IceMan

      redtape, I'll bet the empathy meter flatlines when it's pointed in your direction. A self-satisfied jerk who figures no one helped you get to where you are. In fact, you are almost as big a parasite as any other member of society. Just too self-deceived to realize it.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
    • Logical Song

      The morbidly obese woman in the picture and others like her who refuse to take responsibility for their health are the real "elephant" in the room. Humans are by and large born with a healthy body, but bad choices, bad parents, bad diets, etc. lead them down the road to a ruinous health. Tell me again why I'm responsible for the obesity crisis in America, because I seem to have forgotten. Obamacare is nothing more than a payoff to the medical and insurance lobbies, and does nothing to address the two issues of personal responsibility and exploding costs.

      How in the world did our grandparents and great grandparents build this great nation without government subsidized health care? How did they survive the Great Depression, win World War II, put a man on the moon, etc. without free medical care? When did people completely abdicate personal responsibility, decide it was OK to eat, drink, and smoke themselves into oblivion, and then expect somebody else to fix their ills? It's pathetic, and will be the undoing of the once great nation.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:58 pm |
    • IceMan

      "Humans are by and large born with a healthy body..." More like illogical song. You have no appreciation for the power of genetics, do you? There but for the grace of your imaginary god go you, pal. Another self-righteous jerk.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:05 pm |
  8. Dave

    After reading these comments it is clear Mr. Potter's transition – his revelation – is completely lost on the Republican voters who seem to prefer a system where poor people are treated like animals instead of like human beings.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:33 pm |
    • redtapehater111

      lol I bet you blame republicans for everything!

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

      I hold Republicans accountable for their actions and positions. Something they have trouble doing themselves.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
  9. GenericMan

    Poor people need healthcare.

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

      The rich will not allow it.

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

      wow did they do away with medicade?

      June 27, 2012 at 8:40 pm |
  10. Bribarian

    these look like illegals, not Americans

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

      I doubt you would know what an American looks like. What you seem to be saying is these people don't look like me so screw them.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:41 pm |
    • Mr. Bigdiggle

      What does an American look like?

      June 27, 2012 at 8:50 pm |
    • Sridhar

      How exactly does your American look like ? Can you please describe?

      June 27, 2012 at 8:52 pm |
  11. relmfoxdale

    It's bloody pathetic that we can't provide basic medical care to people in this, the richest country on earth. The hilarity is that we're still paying for it, except we're probably winding up paying more in the end than we would have if we'd dealt with it upfront. All so we can keep our anti-socialist pride or something? I don't get it.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:31 pm |
  12. Jason

    My thought is capitalism is about personal responsibility. If you more money you study when you are in school and then go to college. With that degree you go find a job that pays you what you want to earn and get health insurance. What the author didn't mention is that almost everyone at those clinics chose to be in the situation they are in. I am not saying that they said, I want to be poor and uninsured. What I am saying is that while millions of Americans were working hard to get more money and a job with benefits millions more made the decision not to do what was required to get that job. It is all about personal choice. And I could be wrong but I have read most of the bible and I think all of the New Testament. My understanding is that Jesus healed the sick not to provide health care to all as suggested (in my opinion that is just ignorant) but to perform miracles so that people would believe and save their souls for eternity. I think the author is way off on just about everything. Also, I don't think pastors shut their doors because they believe this debate would divide their congregation. I would guess they just don't agree with him.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:31 pm |
    • Dr. Kurt

      Can't wait to hear someone say that about you if you get unemployed, cannot get another job, lose your health insurance and wind up at a free clinic. I don't know if you live in a vaccuum but I know many who've lost their job through no fault of their own and cannot get a job because NO ONE'S HIRING. You so conveniently ignore how the middle class is disappearing in this country. Why is that? Just a bunch of lazy people? WAKE UP.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:34 pm |
    • The Film Professor

      Jason, you make it all sound so easy. Millions of hard working Americans lost their jobs over the last three years and lost affordable health insurance coverage with it. We found a policy that costs $1000 a month with $8000 of deductibles and know that we were lucky to get that and be able to pay the premiums. After 3 years of working multiple part-time jobs with no health care, I did finally find a FT position and can't begin to tell you how many thousands of resumes, phone calls, networking etc that required. Have a little compassion for your fellow Americans here please.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
  13. abc

    Glad you feel better, Judas–just don't spend any of my money on your Utopian miasma.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:30 pm |
    • ib1sage

      abc, you are a sociopath with no feelings nor any responsibility to your fellow man. Crash and burn you pathetic excuse for a human being.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:35 pm |
    • redtapehater111

      AMEN!

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

      Since you seem to know the alphabet, I imagine someone taught it to you. That person might need health care – or the thousands of people who smooth your life along every day of it.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:37 pm |
  14. pharomoan

    "pure trash"???? the author is a health care industry insider you dolt! open you eyes and take a look around. you worked as an rn. you saw sick people all day with some sort of coverage. the majority of us do not have coverage. so in turn, you feel its just ok, to let Americans lay in pain and die because their financial status doesnt give them enough money to buy inflated and ridiculous health care insurance? really? please find another nation to live in. you are out of touch with reality.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:30 pm |
  15. Pinkflam

    What a gold-trimmed silver bowl of schlits

    June 27, 2012 at 8:30 pm |
  16. Nash

    blah, blah... nothing will change, lazy politicians with their million imaginary religions that provide stupid morals that hold them back from accomplishing anything.

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

      Clearly you're not a Christian. I pitty people like you. Let's hope our Lord and Savior takes pity on your soul. God Bless.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:31 pm |
    • ferg liston

      sorry southern, there is no invisible friend in the sky to save us from ourselves. generally we want to do well but when pressed, we will throw anyone under the bus to save our skin. we are animals and we suck. happy wednesday!

      June 27, 2012 at 8:39 pm |
  17. Lib

    Thank you Mr. Potter. It is unbelievable how conservatives always want to proclaim how religious they are and they are the biggest hypocrits ever.Mitt Romney is a Mormon but he stands with those who don't want to help others. I can't understand how these folks can stand toe to toe with you and profess to being Christians and are the very ones who are criticizing the millions of Americans who need help through no fault of their own. People who have lost their jobs and homes. What a shame the GOP are and God help us all if the healthcare plan is not passed. Something is better than nothing.We can always go back and amend it but atleast it's a start.

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

      Thank you, sir. I was going to comment, but you stated it much better than I ever could.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:40 pm |
  18. Dot

    I am hoping that somehow we can make sure all Americans have adequate health care. It would certainly save money as people would be able to work, be less lkely to have chronic diseases and we might not need so many healthcare workers that are paid by taxes. It does not seem fair that only people who have money get healthcare. Many of them inherited their money or at leas t got an education with family money so they could earn higher wages.

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

      I agree! Americans should get the same help as our elected officials.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:29 pm |
  19. Jaynee

    Why didn't they use my picture for this story, I look like I could be the poster girl for one of those retarded "Real Housewife Shows". Maybe the Republicans would have had more sympathy, because having no health insurance is affecting more than just minorities. I was brought up in a white upper middle class family and now I have no job, no husband, no healthcare, and I line up with all the others at our local free health clinic that is open only once a month and not in the summer because they can't afford the air conditioning. This country needs a single payer system, Obama screwed up with his plan.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:27 pm |
  20. Jeff

    Kinda wondering what CNN is trying to prove here? The decision by the Supreme Court has been made already. We are just waiting for the results.

    Is CNN trying to sway anyone here?

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

      No Jeff, They are reminding people what is at stake here. No news network or even public opinion at this point can sway a SCOTUS decision. If this is overturned, it will be a really sad day for millions.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:35 pm |
    • Silly Liberals

      CNN is desperately trying to keep up the scare when it comes to health care. Remember, to the leftists that run CNN, Obama = good, Republicans = bad

      Nevermind that we can't pay for any of this crap, not to mention that the Marxist in chief had to raid Medicare just to get it past a Congress DOMINATED by Democrats.

      If the Supreme Court rightly knocks this horse-abortion of a law down, I really hope he tries again LOL

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

      Silly Liberals...... you obviously have health insurance and a job. Good for you. I bet you have never had to line up for healthcare for hours upon hours. It almost reminded me of the WW2 movies with the jews having to line up with a star pinned on their chest. Maybe all of us with no health insurance should have to walk around with a star or a big red X pinned on our chest to let people like you know who you don't want to associate with, since we aren't worthy of being treated with respect or deserve to live....

      June 27, 2012 at 8:50 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.