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. Marley

    Some person wrote: "Obama and the Democrats did not want to listen to anything the Repubilicans had to say. The Republicans were not against health care, they were concerned about how to pay for the health care."

    Obamacare was written by Republicans under Clinton because that was the only way any healthcare bill could pass Congress. But now that the Dems and Obama can pass it without them, the Republicans are against it.

    In 1986, Ronald Reagan along with his Republican Congress signed a bill that forbid hospitals to deny anybody emergency care. That includes ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS.

    But guess what? The Reagan and the Republicans did not find a way to pay for this bill! Hence, the cost of this bill was passed on the tax payers and ultimately, your health care premiums.

    Obamacare was once good enough for the Republicans. That is why Mitt Romney copied it for Romneycare. But now the Republicans are only against it for POLITICAL REASONS.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:38 pm |
    • Duane St.Pete FL

      no, dont want the goverment knowing my business and taking over 1/6th of the economy....not political....MONEY and privacy cupcake....

      June 27, 2012 at 11:43 pm |
    • Thomas

      Hardly. We are against it because the government needs to get out of the way because it can't do anything right. I'm all for reforming the system, but not this monstrosity.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:46 pm |
    • Duane St.Pete FL

      good point....look at the post office....10 billion loss last year....effecicient indeed

      June 27, 2012 at 11:49 pm |
  2. Hadenuffyet

    I can actually remember back when doctors made house calls . Insurance companies killed that.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:37 pm |
    • Thomas

      ...and I can remember when 30 cents of every health care dollar didn't go to malpractice insurance. That is why Doctors can't come to your home.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:44 pm |
  3. Sam Barber

    "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."

    None of that matters. In 12 hours or so, The SCOTUS will revert us all back to the Oligarchy-driven mess that is American Health Care, a monster which consumes a huge portion of our income, so that Health Care Corporations...comnpanies that DO NOTHING BUT MAKE MONEY AT OUR EXPENSE...take an ever-increasing chunk of our income. Thanks a lot, Republicans, for nothing!

    June 27, 2012 at 11:34 pm |
    • Thomas

      Got news for you slick, Obama care is (was?) going to do the same thing on the backs of young, healthy people forced to buy more coverage than they needed (as a whole). How do you think adding 30 million people to the roles was going to get paid for, the crackling efficiency of the U.S. government? That's a hot one. Go back to the land of Utopia and pretend that money can still grow on trees.

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

    Amen to Wendell Potter, he saw the condition God's children are in and his conscious felt uncomfortable, for life is very short and one day all will answer to what they did and what they did not do.. I pray that his journey of awakening will also help other politicians and alike to see what is important on this earth.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:34 pm |
    • Alarmed Virginian

      Thank you - very eloquent.

      June 28, 2012 at 12:22 am |
    • jolie harris

      Amen shay, I couldn't agree more. Wendell Potter will surely find his reward in heaven. Matthew verse 25: 31-46, my favorite bible verse, does not mince words about our responsibilities to care for each other as Christians. Other religions also believe that they have moral obligations to care for their fellow man. I pray that I will be on the side of the "sheep" in heaven. I think Mr. Potter will be. Caring for the the least of these brothers of mine and making sure that everyone has access to affordable health care is caring for Jesus himself.

      31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

      34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

      37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

      40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

      41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

      44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

      45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

      46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. ”

      June 28, 2012 at 4:53 am |
  5. Reality

    Only for the new members of this blog:

    How much money would the following save the US taxpayers ?: And how many “souls” would be saved?

    Saving 1.5 billion lost Muslims:
    There never were and never will be any angels i.e. no Gabriel, no Islam and therefore no more koranic-driven acts of horror and terror LIKE 9/11.

    – One trillion dollars over the next several years as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan will end.

    – Eighteen billion dollars/yr to Pakistan will stop.

    – Four billion dollars/yr to Egypt will end.

    Saving 2 billion lost Christians including the Mormons:
    There were never any bodily resurrections and there will never be any bodily resurrections i.e. No Easter, no Christianity!!!

    – The Mormon empire will now become taxable as will all Christian "religions" and evangelical non-profits since there is no longer any claim to being a tax-exempt religion.

    – Saving 15.5 million Orthodox followers of Judaism:
    Abraham and Moses never existed.

    – Four billion dollars/yr to Israel saved.

    – All Jewish sects and non-profits will no longer be tax exempt.

    Now all we need to do is convince these 3.5+ billion global and local citizens that they have been conned all these centuries Time for a YouTube,Twitter and FaceBook campaign!!!!

    (and put a dent in the budget deficit)

    June 27, 2012 at 11:33 pm |
    • Hadenuffyet

      What's that they say about opinions...oh yeah..

      June 27, 2012 at 11:39 pm |
  6. Leo

    I am shocked and dismayed at the lack of empathy of many of posting here. What sets us apart from animals is empathy, compassion and love. Christ helped and healed all that came to him, and so must we. God save us from the likes of you.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:33 pm |
    • Duane St.Pete FL

      settle down Leo....it's touching you want to help everyone but you see God or not it comes down to money. I work hard for mine and don't want anyones hands in my pocket to pay for anyone else.....why doesn't the church open a hospital and treat all the poor for free? MONEY

      June 27, 2012 at 11:40 pm |
  7. DougJ

    Universal healthcare is something that advanced, developed nations have. They have decided that healthcare is a basic human need, and they would rather spend their money on helping people. Unfortunately the US is not really an advanced, developed nation. We have become socially backward.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:33 pm |
    • Alarmed Virginian

      Sad but true - We're the richest nation in the world, also the most self-centered and selfish. I work hard for my money, too (60 to 80 hours a week for 38 years and counting), but I know it is wrong (ethically, morally, and economically) to deny health insurance to millions of people. In the long run, it costs us more since people get sicker and go to ERs gravely ill. Since even most of the naysayers on this board wouldn't just let people die, we pay for the care through higher prices. If more people got care earlier (including immunizations and preventative care), we would be healthier as a nation and costs would go down. China will offer health insurance to all its citizens by 2025 (I believe). They are investing in their people. What a novel idea, America.

      June 28, 2012 at 12:31 am |
  8. Rob

    Reading this story, I don't see how religious zealots can align themselves with the GOP.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:33 pm |
  9. Dan Miller

    While I think Jesus wants everyone to be healthy, I don't think it follows that Christians should fight for government health care. The government is wildly inefficient and wasteful in everything it does. There's a reason why the post office loses billions of dollars every year. I believe Christians should give sacrificially to help others, but I don't think the government is the only way to get it done.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:32 pm |
  10. Mike

    The traitors of the teachings of Jesus will suffer an eternity in a place opposite of their current lifestyle, they better enjoy while they can, because an eternity is a long time.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:31 pm |
  11. Duane St.Pete FL

    touching story....it drew a tear....yeah, lifes not fair and the govermnet has no business trying to "make things fair". good intentions that always go to far in the name of "fairness". the last thing i want is the goverment taking over 1/6th of our economy and knowing all my business. sorry....no way. health care is not a right.....

    June 27, 2012 at 11:31 pm |
    • Alarmed Virginian

      Duane St.Pete FL - First, I don't think it's any more dangerous for a profit-making company to have your health information and, unless you never enroll in Medicare or serve in the military, the government will have your health information anyway. Right now, health insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies know all about your health. One pharma company was fined hundreds of millions of dollars for making some of that information public (names of patients taking antidepressants). Second, I urge you to spend time with the uninsured (real time, not an hour or 2)... listen to them, walk a mile in their shoes, as my Dad always urged me. Then you can pass judgment, not before.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:56 pm |
  12. N2

    I'm fine with giving everyone health care, but I'm not fine with the government taking more taxes from the middle class.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:31 pm |
  13. terrance lee

    cnn is nothing but an arm of the democrat party

    June 27, 2012 at 11:31 pm |
    • Mike

      And Fox News is an extension of the devil.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:32 pm |
    • Duane St.Pete FL

      for sure....it's right in your face

      June 27, 2012 at 11:33 pm |
    • Duane St.Pete FL

      Fox news is great

      June 27, 2012 at 11:47 pm |
  14. cflan63

    Unbelievable. All you horrible, selfish, nasty people who don't want universal health care. You can actually read an article like this where people are being treated in animal stalls and say oh well not my problem? Where is your sense of common decency? Oh, right, you don't have any! It's all about you! I am ashamed we live in the same country. You horrible, selfish people. That our troops give their lives for such disgusting human beings as yourself is a crying shame.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:30 pm |
    • JeremyH6

      You do realize that under this new law, these people would all have a fine issued to them, dont you?

      June 27, 2012 at 11:36 pm |

      I could not have said it better myself! Thank you.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:41 pm |
    • Dan Miller

      Could it possibly occur to you that people want good health care for everyone, but don't think a government plan is the most effective means to accomplish that? Our government is horribly inefficient. They waste billions on any endeavor they set out on.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:58 pm |
    • Alarmed Virginian

      It is a very sad commentary on America's values that the Almighty Dollar is more important than other human beings. Christians used to reach out to others in love and compassion. Now they keep their hands in their pockets to hold onto their money. No longer do they reach out to give others a helping hand–they berate those less fortunate as lazy and sinful.

      June 28, 2012 at 12:06 am |
  15. Hadenuffyet

    Insurance , Vegas run amok...

    June 27, 2012 at 11:29 pm |
  16. Ekaterina Kaverina

    Way to go, Mr. Potter! Nice to see a churchgoing gentleman from Tri-cities with brains and guts!

    June 27, 2012 at 11:29 pm |
  17. Jack

    that fat guy in the picture is the REASON costs are so great. Send him back to Guatemala. And charge fat Americans 4x the coverage of Americans in their proper weight bracket. See how the costs tumble down after that.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:27 pm |
    • Hadenuffyet

      He's actually probably more american that you are . Many native american bloodlines are still prevalent in the Appalachian areas.

      June 27, 2012 at 11:34 pm |
  18. Lila

    It is ironic that Jesus was born in a cave used for animals. Not sure right now how exactly to relate this to health care, but it certainly relates to this story.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:27 pm |
  19. Bob the Cat

    45,000 Americans die each year because they don’t have insurance that provides them access to the care they need.

    End of story you silly Americans, suck it up, pay some taxes and provide CARE

    June 27, 2012 at 11:26 pm |
    • JeremyH6

      How about we force our government to cut down on Medicare fraud BEFORE we simply increase our taxes? Why is it that our government can easily turn a blind eye to 50 billion per year in fraud?

      June 27, 2012 at 11:38 pm |
  20. Tdisco

    FREE.....FREE clinic... If I get a FREE meal...should I complain about how it tastes? Or THANK the person who gave it to me?... Come on... whatever.....get a job for F*(^& sakes.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:25 pm |
    • Alarmed Virginian

      Note that the article specifically said that many of the people at the clinic ARE employed. Having worked with the uninsured, I know that many of them have several part-time jobs. For many people, it is impossible to get a full-time job with benefits. So, rather than go on welfare, they work 2 or 3 or even 4 part-time jobs, of course without benefits. Not only is this a problem with the working poor but also with educated young people. They get part-time employment or work as "independent contractors" and do not get benefits. A lot of companies (especially retailers and food service) avoid hiring full-time employees. Tdisco - the gentlemen in this article is right. We are all (except the very rich) just a layoff away from being uninsured. I hope you keep your job or–if you don't–that others are less judgmental of you than you are of them.

      June 28, 2012 at 12:20 am |
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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.