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. TDiddy

    obama S u C k S!!!!

    June 27, 2012 at 10:08 pm |
  2. penguin

    No health care. The Ayn Randists answer to the Social Security problem. The earlier one dies the less Social Security to pay out

    June 27, 2012 at 10:08 pm |
  3. The Rest Of The World

    Linden, I am writing from Canada, and I love when Republican or Health Care industry lobbyists put commercials on TV claiming "third world" Health Care in Canada. Really? Well we rank above the US in pretty much every medical/life related statistic. Longer Life Longevity, Lower Infant Mortality Rate, and certainly lower HOME FORCLOSURE and BANKRUPTCY rates due to insurance denial and massive medical bills, so that is nothing but propoganda BS. Sadly many of the American population do not actually look into the numbers. They just buy into whatever is said. Our system is far from perfect. Wait times can be excessive at times for certain things. But that is usually nothing more than an inconvenience. We also live with no fear that our insurance company is going to screw us over. Ive had three children born in the same hospital. One had to stay for three days before he was discharged. My bill? Zero. And I didnt have to pay a $5000 insurance premium for that either. We dont have to live with sickness or serious ailments on our own here because we cannot afford to go to the hospital. Its just a different mind set here that isnt based on "Me, Me, Me" or the question "why should I have to...."

    June 27, 2012 at 10:07 pm |
    • Linden Atrocity

      I wish America, would wake up an realize this. But people are too ignorant and blind. They also tend to not care anything about the rest of the world. Which is unfortunate, because the rest of the world could teach them a thing or two. They think they are elite because they live in America. It is a bit embarassing to be associate with a bunch of brainwashed goons.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:10 pm |
    • GTA

      And, you would never feel trapped in a particular job because you couldn't afford to lose the healthcare benefits.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:11 pm |
    • Oda

      It is because too many Americans do not think for themselves – they are drinking the political kool aid. They are taught what to think buit not how to think.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:19 pm |
    • Skew

      I am neither a democrat or republican, but an independent....I guess you could say that I am a realist. I realize that the current system is broken and that the healthcare reform that was passed didn't do anything to curb the costs. There is no possible way to add 35 million people to medicaid, and make no bones about it, that is exactly where this was heading, and not bankrupt the system. If it is not overturned, the system will be bankrupt that much quicker and universal healthcare will have to be implemented with massive government regulation of the costs and ff anyone thinks that insurance will suddenly be available at an affordable rate then they are dreaming.

      Someone please answer this one...how many of the people in Canada and Europe don't pay taxes? That is the problem with having universal healthcare in the US. Until you overhaul the tax system and make everyone pay taxes and not just the middle and upper classes then you will never be able to afford it. While most liberals and dems say that taxing the low income worker is wrong, I say that everyone should have to pay something into the system into to get something.

      Let's be fair to everyone...overhaul the tax system, overhaul health insurance and overhaul healthcare costs.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:42 pm |
  4. LCSWquilter

    I live in the Commonwealth of Virginia where Potter saw the people being treated in animal stalls. It is unbelieveable to me how people who claim to be conservative "Christians" think this is acceptable. I couldn't agree with Potter more and admire and appreciate his courage.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:05 pm |
  5. tenaciousdeucer

    It is in the best interest of health insurance companies and health care providers to make sure that health care is as expensive as possible in order to force everyone to need insurance.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:05 pm |
  6. readereye

    Mei, that is totally untrue. Know your facts before posting. Planned Parenthood does not get 90% of its profits from abortions. You must get your information from Fox False News. Christian Churches oppose Obamacare because they don't really care about anyone except themselves and all the money they can squeeze out of their parishioners.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:04 pm |
  7. Satan

    If the dreaded Obamacare is struck down tomorrow, it will be because of a compromise measure that candidate-Obama has opposed and Republicans can once championed. The "individual mandate" is only necessary because Obama caved on a public option and decided it was more important to get private health insurance companies on board. There were no "death panels". There was no "ramming down throats". Obamacare is Romneycare, which was based on a concept Republicans had embraced in the early90s as a conservative alternative to "Hillarycare". The only reason Obamacare is so unpopular is because it has the name "Obama" attached to it. Again, for those scoring at home, if the Supreme Court strikes down any or all of heathcare reform tomorrow, it will be because the are striking down a REPUBLICAN idea.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:03 pm |
  8. Me

    Here in Canada, our government spends HALF of the amount that the US government does PER citizen, yet EVERYONE is covered with high tech, effective, efficient, available health care. The bum on the street gets the same care as the bank CEO (unless he wants to go to the US of course). Sure we have waiting lists for certain things, but if I have to wait 6 months for a hip replacement so someone else can get immediate heart attack surgery or cancer treatment, so be it! I had appendicitis, had all my tests and was on the operating table within 12 hours, had a laparoscopic surgery done, and was home the next day with painkillers I didn't have to pay for. I walk out of EVERY hospital and EVERY doctor appointment without EVER seeing a bill. That is foreign to Americans!!

    We are PROUD of our healthcare system. We are also HAPPY to pay a few more % of our pay in taxes so ALL can have the healthcare they need! My in laws are American and they are SHOCKED when we say up here we are GLAD to pay more taxes for this! My American husband who is a former Marine, is HAPPY to pay the tax he does for the service we get. And guess what? We pay less taxes than you do combined with heatlhcare premiums up to $1000 a month for a family, AND we get more services! (such as ONE YEAR PAID maternity leave!) Healthcare is a human RIGHT as much as education is, so what's the difference? And guess what, in spite of idiots like Sarah Palin saying we have "death panels", what an idiot, actually we decide our care with our DOCTORS ONLY, the government has NO SAY, they just PAY THE BILL when the doctor sends it! The only way our government gets into our healthcare files is with a court issued warrant, so there goes that stupid argument. Universal healthcare, done right, is the ONLY way to go!!!

    June 27, 2012 at 10:03 pm |
    • LCSWquilter

      Thank you for posting this, Me, to counter the ridiculous arguments that conservatives make on this issue. They are contantly trying to distort the Canadian health care experience.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:07 pm |
    • es from usa

      please do not portray Canadian healthsystem as perfect because it is not, it simply does not give you a choice when you receive care, sure you will get it eventually. My unlucky Canadian friend has testicular cancer and was told to wait 6 months to have it removed so he came to US and had the surgery the same week... Canadian has its perks, but I would rather pay my high premiums then walking with a cancer in my balls..... Amercan system needs to be improved, but let's not idealize Canadian system.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:21 pm |
    • Oda

      I so would love to move to Canada! Sure everyting there isn't perfect either, but they sure seem to have their priorities straight!!

      June 27, 2012 at 10:25 pm |
  9. Winston5

    Boy I wanna believe they'll do the right thing...but this is the same court that made 'citizens' united.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:01 pm |
    • Jim

      This is the scariest supreme court I've ever known on top of the scariest extremist tea party pushing their agenda with no possibility of negotiation. A small lunatic fringe is holding America hostage and it's down right pathetic. Money has brainwashed everyone into morons with Fox News administering the drug.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:08 pm |
  10. Deafia

    Health insurance executives need to follow Potter's role model. Sadly, there are not so many like him.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:00 pm |
  11. Gia

    What extraordinary show of character on this man's part. Bravo!

    June 27, 2012 at 10:00 pm |
  12. Michael

    The sad thing is that we continue to be focused on the wrong things. The biggest problem we've got (health care costs) are a function of the ridiculous inefficiency and abuse of the system, and MORE of this is going to simply cost more. If machinery is broken, making it available for use by more people isn't the answer...it's just costly. If we could reduce waste, fraud, abuse, etc. AND make insurance available across state lines, you'd largely eliminate the problems. But we don't dare touch that most sacred of cows, dare we? Instead, we go for the stupid, cowardly approach.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:00 pm |
    • Eric

      If we allow health insurance to be sold across state lines, all the insurance companies will relocate to whatever state has the weakest protections from their practices, and then lobby the hell out of that state to continually weaken consumer protections.

      This is why corporations incorporate in Delaware, why credit card companies send your bills from South Dakota or Delaware (no usury laws there), etc.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:08 pm |
  13. mike byrd

    Health Care should be bought not given, no work no eat...we are a welfare society...
    Time to get up and go to work....
    Fat over eaters, are a burden even to them self...grow up and be responsible..

    June 27, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
    • Linden Atrocity

      ignorant byrd, gets the worm?

      June 27, 2012 at 10:00 pm |
    • The Bird Is The Word

      @Linden: I just want to make it clear that I am not related to Byrd.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:07 pm |
    • Deafia

      What if you have no job? Can we call you lazy and fat?

      June 27, 2012 at 10:10 pm |
    • eric

      I will pray for you that you never will be without health insurance. Worm!!

      June 27, 2012 at 10:12 pm |
    • Linden Atrocity

      Haha, I know that Bird is the Word. That is why I spelled it byrd. 😀

      June 27, 2012 at 10:12 pm |
    • Denise

      You didn't read the article did ya? Shame on you.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:15 pm |
    • ezlivin

      While I do agree with what you are trying to say, it is a fact that cost of healthcare for ANYONE and EVERYONE in this country is outrageous. My father was on travel in Korea and had to have an emergency back surgery. Being a US citizen, he had to pay everything out of his pocket. Doctor visits, surgery, nursing care, 10 day stay in hospital in a private room (because he wanted it) came out to about $5000. And this is in a developed country. When the same procedure would have cost him literally 100 times more over here, one can safely say there is something seriously wrong with the system. And some people are getting awfully rich while some people are literally dying because they cannot afford to pay. I came very close to being part of that statistics when my insurance company tried to deny a life saving procedure for my wife who has cancer. Funnily enough, I grew up in poverty but now I have a great job and make upper middle class salary with full health insurance. Even that was not going to be enough without help from good people who came to our rescue. I don't think you really understand what it is like to be poor.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:24 pm |
  14. IrishAmerican

    The American Government doesn't care about the health of it's citizens. If one person dies due to lack of care, what does it matter? They're still rich. Yet we'll be happy to invade different countries and spend trillions of dollars to keep us safe from terrorism! Better to die a slow, painful death from cancer or some other life threatening disease then to die instantaneously in a terrorist attack.

    June 27, 2012 at 9:56 pm |
  15. Mary

    Great guy and we need more people like him.

    For those, who oppose for whatever reason, please read this blog:

    open.salon.com /blog /cedar_burnet t/2012 /03 /29 /an_open_letter_to_people_on_the_fence_about_obamacare

    June 27, 2012 at 9:55 pm |
  16. Insurance will destroy the USA nevermind Iran

    When a person is sick, it is a drag on all of society. When we realize this, we can finally stop the untenable price escalation for the sake of insurance corporation shareholder meetings. The only way a corporation makes a profit is to expand every year. If the volume of insurance subscribers does not change, the only thing that can meet this corporate goal is to raise prices uniformly for the subscriber. If jobs and income stay pretty much the same year after year, eventually corporate insurance will run itself out of business by price escalation. You take the necessity for growth out of the equation, and just break even (oh no how terrible, everyone gets a salary but no insane stock profit targets to hit) and finally you will have things under control.

    June 27, 2012 at 9:54 pm |
    • Harvey2

      Would be great to read an article on healthcare that isn't .. so left ..government healthcare slanted? Something more balanced. Question: Is Obamacare seriously adding to our dangerous level of government debt with our country teetering on recession 2?

      June 27, 2012 at 10:21 pm |
  17. John

    Wasn't it Paul that had a "road to Damascus" conversion? You know the one guy who didn't ever actually meet Jesus in the flesh but somehow still managed to have most of the New Testament accredited to him? Further, wasn't Judas was the guy that implicated Jesus to the Romans...the people that killed Jesus? So, what is this article REALLY saying?

    June 27, 2012 at 9:54 pm |
    • Steve

      John...I suspect you're being disingenuous.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:58 pm |
  18. DaveinIL

    These comments are a bunch of pointless liberal drivel as Obamcare dies tomorrow.

    June 27, 2012 at 9:54 pm |
    • jason

      yeah, what's with liberals always trying to bring up reality, anyway? don't they have any imagination?

      June 27, 2012 at 10:01 pm |
    • Steve

      Hope you never have a pre-existing condition that prevents you from getting insurance or suffer a debilitating illness that bankrupts you with expenses the Insurance company won't pay. So...I'm guessing you like higher premiums and having your future and the future of your children and grandchildren held hostage by the insurance industry?

      June 27, 2012 at 10:02 pm |
    • Michael

      We can only hope. If it does, we'll start looking for better solutions (that don't give even more power to a bloated and inefficient, unproductive government). But if it doesn't get rejected, that works too...big time wake up call for the American people to show Barack the door and keep the court from becoming a ridiculous bastion of liberalism.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:02 pm |
    • Suki Barnstorm

      I hope you are never in a position where you need health care and you have no insurance. But you are obviously blessed in health and wealth.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:06 pm |
    • cedaly1968

      In the opinion given by the SCOTUS in Arizona v. U.S. over immigration, SCOTUS very clearly pointed out the Supremacy of the Congress over the States on critical national issues was well established. As much as everyone likes to call it Obamacare, the POTUS DOES NOT PASS LEGISLATION. The POTUS can champion it, and guide it and work for it but in the end, the Affordable Care Act of 2010 was passed by he Congress. Given the things that SCOTUS quoted in their ruling on immigration, I am curious whether or not they will strike down the Act. I suspect everyone will be surprised tomorrow in that they will permit the law. If the Congress can not require people to buy health insurance, how can they require the people to pay taxes? Sign up for selective service? I think the ruling tomorrow will be very very interesting.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:14 pm |
  19. The Rest Of The World

    did you notice the comment that he mentioned that the US is the ONLY Western Civilized country in the world that does not have a universal health care system run by its government? Is this another situaion where the people of the US just think you are that much smarter than everyone else? The richest country in the world, with the BEST doctors, and BEST hospitals yet you do not even rank in the Top 25 in either Average Life Longevity or in Infant Mortality Rates. Yet you claim to have the best Health Care system in the world. There are ZERO stats to back that up. Its like the Kansas City Royals claiming they have the best team in baseball because the waterfall in their outfield is pretty. You are surpassed by all those other STUPID apparently COMMUNIST or SOCIALIST countries that actually have created an environment that while far from perfect, is based on the principal that everyone is equal. I can see why Americans would have trouble grasping that idea because everything about your country is based on greed. Every foundation of America is based on "free market", "for profit". I love America. I went to school there. I love the people. It is a great country. But you are so naive. And for the sake of not wanting to pay more tax, you turn your back on those less fortunate.

    June 27, 2012 at 9:53 pm |
    • Jack

      You're so right. I've known this most of my life. Somebody is being sold a bunch of fiction. I've lived in Europe. I've even gotten sick and went to the hospital in Europe. Great care. No wait. Didn't cost a penny. Now, maybe if I'd wanted a nose job I might have to be put on a waiting list. That's fine.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:59 pm |
    • Steve

      Good job....I would add that every other country is (thanks to Universal health Care) supplying superior health care at a much lower cost per capita than the US. So....what's that mean? We like higher premiums? We prefer inferior health care?
      By the way, niether South Africa or Mexica have Universal health Care) All other western economies do.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:06 pm |
    • Sunshine100

      Please come back and run for office, get a law degree, work in Dept of Health & Human Services, please bring other like-minded folks with you. Recruit Americans to assist you. The Republicans, and many Democrats too, look at the poor and down-trodden as fodder for the underclass workers. It's the start of the industrial revolution all over again when there were 0 laws to protect the masses. The Concervative Christians are a joke! Inside their churches and themselves, they hate anyone who doesn't think like them – the US vs Them mentality. I am Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddist, Hindu, Moslem, White, Black, Brown, Asian, young, old, fat, skinny – I have God, Allah, and all the other names for a Supreme Being in my heart and soul. Hate me? You, then, hate yourselves.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:31 pm |
    • sense

      You pretty much just stated what most of my non-American friends have expressed.

      I'm an American, and I think you're right on every point.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:57 pm |
  20. Linden Atrocity

    Funny how we all dismiss Universal health care. Seriously, everyone I have ever talked to that lives in Canada, praises it. But our countries arrogance to prove that we are better than everyone else is stubborn and will lead to worse problems in the future. You think you are safe with your job and your benefits? Don't be surprised when you lose that job because it gets outsourced, or downsized. You get thrown back out into the great big world and have to fend for yourself, hope you don't get anything terminal. Because...let me tell yah, you're screwed then.

    June 27, 2012 at 9:52 pm |
    • Steve

      Good post. Someow, our citizens have been convinced that it only happens to the other guy. I think it's the sheep syndrome.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:07 pm |
    • Madcow11

      Poor Byrd, you just don't get it, do you?

      June 27, 2012 at 10:09 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.