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. A.J.

    I wish people could see the ways that our unhealthy lifestyle, problems like illegal immigration and racial inequality, overdone and fake 'political correctness' that limits our ability to communicate on huge issues like these, our lazy ass culture (that I'm happily part of), and so on and so forth build off each other to screw our country over. I barely have a grasp on to myself and I'm an economics and political science major.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:52 pm |
    • Nodack

      It seems obvious to me that our two party system has run its course. It isn't two slightly different sets of ideas working together for the benefit of all Americans anymore. Now all that matters is apposing the other side no matter what the topic. Nothing that is good for all is possible anymore. Big business can now buy politicians thanks to the Supreme court as well.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:05 pm |
  2. algorelies

    hmm..if a picture were to tell a thousand words, the lady is sick from obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney and liver problems, circulatory problems, heart problems, and probably some sort of cancer stemming from the 50-60 lbs of visceral fat.
    Go to traMlaW on any saturday and you will see the "assembly line" of sick or soon to be sick americans buying hoardes of junk food with their pmatdoof debit cards.
    See, health care is not needed if americans were to be responsible for their own well being. Period. Eat well, drink lots of water, sleep well and MOVE!!! Walk, run, cycle, exercise, do anything to keep your body limber and your heart healthy.
    But no. Obama would not want to stop the one thing that this country manufactures, and very well, sick americans.
    Put a tax on obesity, have the money go to a health care fund and reward those americans who are healthy with some payback money. All taf sratsab will have to pay, until they become healthy or not.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:51 pm |
    • Nodack

      You are blaming Obama for obesity in the US? Really? I thought it was too hot outside today. I'm sure it was Obama's fault.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:11 pm |
  3. Nodack

    Nice article. I have been preaching what this guy is saying for awhile.

    We could fix this and make things better for all, but we are too busy fighting each other.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:49 pm |
    • wilson pickett

      Health care. Was that obese, grotesque woman born this way?? 80% of the people in the Unites States are fat?? Health care?

      June 27, 2012 at 11:01 pm |
  4. Joel

    I'd like the Christian readers to consider Mathew 25: 31 – 46. The people struggling without medical care very well might be considered "one of my least brothers".

    June 27, 2012 at 10:49 pm |
  5. juice

    You know the health care industry is out of touch with reality, If the medical bill you received amounts to million just for cancer care.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:49 pm |
  6. Steve Lyons

    "FREE HEALTH CARE" must be funded from the assets of the politicians that promote it.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:47 pm |
    • "militant" patients

      you are so misinformed. we're not shocked, but you really need an update.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:53 pm |
    • Nodack

      Which politician said FREE health care? Name one.... Exactly, you can't.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:53 pm |
  7. Ed

    I really don't believe that restricting health care to those who are willing or able to work hard enough to afford it will fix our country. Health care is really not that elastic of a demand service that, providing it to the poor/disabled in our country, is the problem. I'm afraid big money politics, with simple one liner policies that hide the real truth, are the problem. Healthcare needs to be reformed. Obamacare stinks. I don't know what it will take for us all to wake up to the real need. As an Independent with more libertarian leanings than most, I think healthcare is in a different category.....should be included under the definition of the right to life......???? by the way, I agree completely with your other points.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:47 pm |
    • JS

      'Obamacare' is the first attempt that anyone in government has attempted to address this since the Clintons got shot down trying...

      June 27, 2012 at 10:59 pm |
    • Ed

      To get a good health care law, more people need to be engaged and educated with the truth. Unfortunately, our country has been trending in the other direction for years. Two potential positives are the increase in communication due to advances in technology, and the hope that a real leader will somehow will finally emerge to lead our country to a brighter future. Truly inspirational leadership can make all the difference in the world. Can't be measured with numbers.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:20 pm |
  8. Reggie from LA

    The preachers hate Obama too. You know. The Christian President. Duh. What wuz I thinking. Why Joel Osteen himself did declare that Romney has "Christian values". However, he did not "minimize" Romney by saying that he is "A" Christian. Most of you don't know what Socialism really is. There is considerable difference between public assistance and universal health care and that of the tenets of Socialism. "Socialism is what ignorant politicians tell ignorant votes to espouse at every opportunity. The behavior propagates more of the same, even from people who'd rather die of their ails than have fellow (that's hard to say) "Americans" help out...as we "good Christians" should.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:47 pm |
  9. me

    Maybe we need Doctors Without Borders in this country...

    June 27, 2012 at 10:46 pm |
  10. Lee Oates

    Potter is one of America's true hero's. He will always have my respect. It is too bad that so many Americans are willing to shoot themselves in the foot to satisfy the greed of the 1%.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:44 pm |
  11. Brian

    The reason why most churches shut their door on him is because a majority of churches are more republican than Christian. A Christian helps heal the sick and feed the poor and desires their government to do the same. A republican wants the sick to fend for themselves and helps businesses drive off the poor and desires their government to do the same. I am starting to believe that there are no Christian republicans, which is why Romney won the primary.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:43 pm |
  12. Woosh62

    Health care reform is absolutely needed in our country. Are we a nation of barbarians who leave their sick and elderly on the way side? The people who advocate against health care reform are utterly unaware just how unavailable health care is to the 'uninsurable' and the poor. I am eternally grateful to President Obamafor all that he has done so far; for example raising the age for children to 26 years in order to be insured under their parent's plan and also doing away with the insurance companies being able to deny anybody due to a pre-existing condition.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:43 pm |
  13. Ken

    The fast food, soft drink, and tabacco corporations should foot the bill for our healthcare. They reap all the benefits from making these people unhealthy, then we pay higher insurance to cover the uninsured, and taxes for medicaid and medicare. Sure, part of it is lifestyle choices, but the aggressive ad campaigns, lobbying, and addictive ingredients are just as much to blame. Corporations have become so effective at passing risk and costs onto the public and taxpayer while they maximize profits at the expense of the common good. Like the bailout, this is just another case of that. This is not the capitalism that Adam Smith envisioned.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:43 pm |
    • Mike

      Totally agree, but majority of people in this country don't get it.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:50 pm |
    • JamesofFaith

      Alternatively, if we could educate people to make wise decisions at all levels (e.g., good lifestyle choices and more critical thinking in the face of corporate advertizing and government propaganda) we would all be better off.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:04 pm |
  14. mike byrd

    I can not afford HC but I have an I Phone and drink Starbucks coffee god Bless....

    June 27, 2012 at 10:42 pm |
    • Steve Lyons

      Then you are part of the problem.....

      June 27, 2012 at 10:49 pm |
    • Chris

      Say that again, but looking in the eyes of someone with a pre-existing condition who is denied health insurance and cannot hold a full-time job because of the condition.
      Go talk to people with multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, rheumatoid arthritis, or cancer. If you have a heart and can feel empathy, you may stop smiling for a minute. And then go back to your disease-free (for now) life and forget about those human beings.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:50 pm |
  15. Rick

    The issue is that "Christians" are against HC. They are conservatives and do not feel they need to help anyone. This is the new Christian faith. Also they are so wrapped up in the misinformation and lies of the Republicans, no religion could help them.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:42 pm |
    • Kawipoo

      Lets increase everbody's health care costs by 50% to make you happy. You would be the first to complain. As long as you don't pay everything is fine. I do not feel responsible for irresponsible individuals who do not care about their own health.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:56 pm |
  16. roberto

    "Potter was raised as a Southern Baptist in Kingsport, Tennessee, where he says his parents instilled in him an appreciation for helping others."

    Sorry Potter, the powers that be, i.e., Congress and the majority political party of the judiciary, otherwise known as the SCOTUS, do not hold the same beliefs as your parents or others in the country that believe in helping those who cannot help themselves. These folks are going to have to rely upon themselves to get their medical care. Sorry. That's just the way it is now and the way it's going to be from here on out. If you ain't got the money or the insurance then maybe prayer will help. Ahhh, life's tough, but that's the way it is. Suck it up. Meanwhile, us folks with money and insurance have got it good. Praise Jesus. Scuse me, gotta go the grocery store to get some ice cream. Just ran out last night.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:41 pm |
    • "militant" patients

      most people will probably get better when they get away from our health care system and their lies anyway. don't get sick. and if you do, take someone with you so they don't kill you.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:50 pm |
  17. Steve Lyons

    Of course he supports the mandatory confiscation of WAGES to fund socialist style health services. What a great way to have a captive and confiscatory revenue stream. Instead of decreasing his wage and bonus structure he rallies for Obama Care to assure that his coffers overflow with additional income. And the payout will be minimized by reducing qualified tests and limiting the drug choices while increasing co-pays. Why not conscript doctors? Why not pay for medical school in exchange for 25 years of public medical service? Why not just mandate public medical service?

    June 27, 2012 at 10:40 pm |
    • Larry LaBarge

      uuummm.... Our postal service, garbage removal, and many other public service are socialized. Why not basic human care?

      June 27, 2012 at 10:49 pm |
    • phisixfly

      conscript docs? 25 years for putting doctors through medical school? If anyone is getting the short end of the stick, it's the doctors. You think they make a lot of money, but imagine taking out a 400k loan over 8 years putting yourself through hell the last couple years. And then you get payed below minimum wage for the next three years (in residency) with 80 hour weeks. You work your butt off to help people for 11 years. There are some docs that get paid a lot, but a lot of primary care docs barely make six figures after taxes and insurance with a tremendous amount of debt. If anything, doctors need to be paid more and insurance companies need to make less money...

      June 27, 2012 at 10:53 pm |
    • Joe Atzberger

      If helping people in need is socialist, then I am a full blown socialist. I have been a critical care nurse my whole adult life. I have seen peoples lives destroyed by the debt that comes along with a serious illness or injury. Liberals, conservatives, Christians, Muslims and Jews. Your nice insurance policy with that $1 million cap isn't going very far if you end up in the ICU for a few weeks. Socialism? Really? I remember all the right wing Christians wearing all those WWJD bracelets. O.K.. What would Jesus do? Probably not kick the sick and elderly to the curb. Jesus must have been the original Marxist. Every single one of us will need health care in our lives. Some of us for catastrophic injuries and illness that will take months or years to recover from. There, for the grace of God, I go.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:15 pm |
  18. JPSchubert

    How pray ask is supporting a law that forces everyone to buy insurance, no matter how crappy the insurance, from a money hungry and COMPLETELY corrupt medical industry supposed to help keep people out of animal stalls? They are there because there current insurance doesn't pay for their BASIC needs. Even if they had insurance it still wouldn't pay and they will be more people in the stalls..

    there is a word for this guy – hypocrite.

    What we need is 100% government paid for health care. How fast do you think the CURES will come out when the government pays for ALL health care. There should be only ONE health care system for everyone. FREE and government sponsored.

    There are no cures for anything, under the current greed system. WHY IS THAT?? No money in cures. We need to destroy the current health care system and have to government foot the entire bill.

    If is sucks bad enough then there will be a revolt. Bring on the CURES!!!

    June 27, 2012 at 10:40 pm |
    • Steve Lyons

      Why make "the people" pay at all when Congress can make it mandatory for medical professionals to "donate" 40 hours a week to the public good...... The whole argument over insurance misses the point. Too much "insurance" money is spent on administration and "dividends" that leaves the system to pay "investors" rather than for services needed by patients.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:45 pm |
  19. jsilva

    Yes , spread the costs, reduce them. If that is socialized medicine, then so be it.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:40 pm |
  20. Peter Wolfe

    It is funny in this debate because nobody ever mentions the waste of private health care insurance on overhead and administrative costs in this country is absurd. Medicare and medicaid have far less overhead than the private insurance companies. So, much for efficiency and bureaucracy right? Secondly, another thing neglected is the sunshine deals and the ilwritten perscriptions, lack of medical cannabis and the expensive technology that is foisted upon us without our say at all. The current system is stupid, illogical and quite frankly anti-american in my estimation.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:39 pm |
    • Steve Lyons

      No one mentions the outflow of cash in the form of DIVIDENDS to Wall Street "investors" either.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:41 pm |
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