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. Jack

    Good evening everyone. You are all invited to visit ... thestarofkaduri.com

    June 28, 2012 at 12:02 am |
  2. DavidInNC

    I was a strong Reagan supporter until he became the biggest spender we had ever had in the White House. He gave us the first 300 billion deficit. It sure seems to me, that the people that keep bringing up Reagan as a prime example of what a president should be, either are not old enough to remember, or are just plain stupid.

    June 28, 2012 at 12:01 am |
  3. WitchyPoo

    Here's the thing. All these republicans and right-wingers keep carrying on about "socialism" when it comes to health care, but they think we should keep giving oil companies subsidies and tax loopholes? Seriously? I am so SICK of the hypocrisy in this country – and sure, it comes from both sides, but the republicans are seriously masters. They "love freedom" but feel like their personal religious beliefs should dictate who can marry. They want "small government" while demanding trillions to invade foreign countries that are no threat to ours. They scream about "socialism" about health care – then in the next breath they claim that all uninsured americans can get care at the ER – which is paid for by TAXPAYERS. On top of all of that, they don't want anyone legislating anything having to do with making the nation healthier. You can't make soda five cents more expensive. You can't limit the size of foods that are contributing to illness. You can't push for healthy meals in schools. You know what you CAN do, though, according to republicans? You can keep throwing trillions into farm subsidies to giant agribusiness – the same corporate farms that are producing factory farmed pseudomeats and the corn pumped into the corn syrup making everyone fat and sick. For some reason, handing trillions of our tax dollars to THOSE people – or to oil companies – or to natural gas companies – or to banks – that's all just SWELL. How long are we supposed to keep falling for this?

    June 28, 2012 at 12:01 am |
  4. Francis

    If Canada has such a brilliant medical system then tell me why you have a fraction of the medical development, and innovation that the US offers. Also, what makes a good doctor is good training. Canadian training is second rate to our medical schools.

    June 28, 2012 at 12:01 am |
    • Emily

      Dear God! I can walk into any hospital here and get great service for nothing! Not one damn penny. Unless I want a private room. I think my mom had to pay about 100$ for her 3 day hospital stay since she opted on the private room.
      For me, I am covered for the rest of my life when it comes to hearing aids since I was born deaf from one ear. I will never have to pay for an aid unless I want a fancy one.
      For a country that strives on moving forwards, it amazes me how backwards you can sometimes be...

      June 28, 2012 at 12:15 am |
    • Emily

      And one last thing....if our training is second rate, why is the States stealing our Doctors when they come out of med school????

      June 28, 2012 at 12:23 am |
  5. Monty

    I'm a surgeon.. that lady is at least 380 lbs, likely with diabetes and COPD from long term smoking. The healthcare cost of taking a single person like that for a single year could be the equivalent of at least 50 average americans of typical health.

    Not trying to pass judgement. Just stating some simple facts. Too much medical resources are being diverted to care for a few individuals with poor lifestyle choices.

    June 28, 2012 at 12:00 am |
    • cck99352

      Why is it wrong to pass judgement on someone's poor decisions? If someone drinks and drives, we feel completely justified in passing judgement. If someone becomes incredibly obese, then we are hesitant, make excuses, or remain silent. The simple truth is, both examples are valid and it is fair and reasonable to be critical and judgmental of someone who makes poor decisions (especially since we, the collective tax payers, pick up the tab).

      June 28, 2012 at 12:03 am |
    • alex

      Your kidding me right? 90% of us make bad lifestyle choices.

      June 28, 2012 at 12:06 am |
    • jasong911

      could not agree more!

      June 28, 2012 at 12:12 am |
    • danyduval

      she is poor and likely has a different diet than you would typically eat. she may smoke but was likely raised in lower socioeconomic society where it was acceptable. furthermore, she is less educated and would not know the difference - the physician should help educate (ofcourse you wouldn't care since you are a surgeon). unfortunately, she cannnot even afford see a doctor on a regular basis to even get education on diet, etc. - thus perpetuating the cycle onto her children. before passing judgement, know the shoes your patients have to walk in. btw, i am a physician as well.

      June 28, 2012 at 12:14 am |
  6. Resident of USA

    Can employee tell his employer what kind of healthcare plan he/she should have? How can these politicians tell the American people the government healthcare sucks, yet they themselves have been enjoying while its being paid by the fools who elected them.

    June 28, 2012 at 12:00 am |
  7. ted williams

    if you ignore the health care needs of the poor, then the hospital emergency rooms will pick up the tab for people that fall through the cracks, and at that point, those problems will be much worse – realize that health care premiums have been rising by 10-20%/year for the last decade – we need a national system

    June 27, 2012 at 11:59 pm |
  8. Ben Wiley

    Amazing person. In today's age, he's truly the bravest man alive. He's right on the money. Keep it simple. Right and wrong.
    Compassion for the poor is always the answer.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:59 pm |
  9. cck99352

    People are dying because, like the fat, disgusting and very sick woman on the cover photo for this story, they make bad decisions regarding their lifestyle. She symbolizes what is wrong with the American health care system (and society).

    Anyone else notice the whole group looks like illegal immigrants?

    June 27, 2012 at 11:58 pm |
    • Ben Wiley

      God....shut up. This is why the GOP is going to lose big this next election. People are plain sick of ignorant, racist, right wing nazi tea baggers.

      June 28, 2012 at 12:01 am |
    • Beadles

      She looks more Native American to me. And, she obviously has made some poor health choices. Similarly, you have chosen to be an insensitive boor.

      June 28, 2012 at 12:04 am |
    • JL

      You have a very valid point, but that's not the way to express it (negatively, with racist overtones). Yes, people are largely sick in this country because of poor health choices. Education is the key. Most people have no idea about how to eat healthy. As long as you have a culture that feeds it's kids burgers, hotdogs and pizza at school, and in the homes ... you will have a very sick country. The education system needs to change.

      The world famous chef from the UK (Jamie Oliver) came to the USA and commented that the way parents feed their kids in this country, and in the schools is ABUSIVE. It certainly is. This can be changed by educating people.

      June 28, 2012 at 12:09 am |
    • Steve

      What cck99352 says is painful and uncomfortable. And 100% on target. And if a person has no regard for their own health, why should the rest of us pay for their medical problems? I drag my butt to the gym each morning, well before that enormous, diabetic women even wakes up to eat her cookies.

      June 28, 2012 at 12:11 am |
    • Guido

      Yeah, if everyone made the right decisions for a living a healthy life, no one would ever get sick or die.

      Since it is so obvious a solutions who needs to worry about the state of health care in this country – we don't need any healthcare.

      June 28, 2012 at 12:12 am |
    • jasong911

      lofl. good call

      June 28, 2012 at 12:14 am |
  10. ted williams

    if you ignore the health care needs of the poor, then the hospital emergency rooms will pick up the tab for people that fall through the cracks, and at that point, those problems will be much worse

    June 27, 2012 at 11:58 pm |
  11. JL

    Finally ... a Christian man that actually cares, and has decided that if Jesus offered universal health care and healing, then we should certainly follow in his footsteps. But sadly, most Christians I've talked to in this country are anti universal health care. I find that utterly selfish, opportunistic and un-Christian.

    This is one of the very few western countries left in the world that doesn't provide adequate health care to it's citizens. It's totally disgusting, and utterly evil. Even a crooked dictator such as Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when interviewed about the USA said he was so confused as to why the USA spends SO MUCH money on going to war, but doesn't take care of it's own citizens in matters such as health care. This has to change!!

    It is utterly incomprehensible that the USA would spend trillions on meddling around in other people's affairs all over the world, while you have a third world country in terms of the health of the people here. It's just so wrong.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:57 pm |
    • jasong911

      he's got a point there

      June 28, 2012 at 12:11 am |
  12. Jakk

    I wouldn't mind paying into a universal healthcare if all the problems were addressed to reduce the cost of a doctor visit, medication, and surgery. Its not a matter of helping others its about giving a person in need $100 but the sytems requires me to pay $1000 to get it to them. I am unwilling to do this.

    Doctor degrees too much $$$
    Medical support traing $$$
    Lawers $$$
    Malpractice insurance
    pharmaceuticals $$$
    Insurance. CEOs $$$
    Government to manu regulations and paperwork
    Doctors incomes $$$ only because they signed up to help folks not get paid $$$

    June 27, 2012 at 11:56 pm |
  13. aertzc

    Great story about the success of the free market.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:56 pm |
    • Steve

      Free market? Are you serious? If we had a free market, we would all have incentive to take care of our health. When we know Uncle Sam will pay our bills via Medicaid or Medicare, that incentive is gone. Go ahead, have another cupcake. It's ok, Medicare Part D will pay for your Lipitor!

      June 28, 2012 at 12:14 am |
  14. reformer1

    What a disappointment the religious right has been on this issue. We place "In God We Trust" on our pennies, but for many of the religious right, they place more trust in their pennies than in their God. They place more faith in their wants rather than their needs and in the needs of those who aren't as fortunate as they are. I do hope the "The meek shall inherit the Earth."

    June 27, 2012 at 11:56 pm |
    • JL

      Spot on reformer1. You are so right. Shame shame shame. Jesus would be disgusted with the way 'Christians' treat the poor, sick in this country.

      'For as much as you've done it to the least among you, you've done it unto me'. (Jesus).

      June 28, 2012 at 12:02 am |
    • aertzc

      I think you mean they place more trust in their God than their government. Ironic because one is corrupt and inefficient and the other is probably non-existent.

      June 28, 2012 at 12:04 am |
    • danyduval

      spot on. bulk of christian right is not very christian. hypocrites. and they will find arguments to convince themselves its ok

      June 28, 2012 at 12:23 am |
  15. Francis

    What Mr Potter didn't reveal is that his insurance company had been one of the most ruthless to paying customers: denying access to care, denying medically necessary treatment, etc. I'm glad he can endorse Obamacare and make all that bad he did and participated in right. (chuckle).

    June 27, 2012 at 11:56 pm |
    • Dave

      That's why he LEFT Cigna, you dolt. Do us all a favour and finish reading the article before submitting your keyboard vomit.

      June 28, 2012 at 12:31 am |
  16. aN

    I spent 1 night in the ER and I walk out the next day with 3k worth of medical bills coming my way. AND I'M FULLY INSURED.

    I'm no Obama fan but you pubes did NOTHING (and would do nothing if it wasn't for dems!)

    June 27, 2012 at 11:56 pm |
    • Beadles

      Hospital treatment is approximately a 3 to 1 deal. One person (or their insurance company) pays to cover the costs of treating those without insurance. Hospitals can't absorb the cost. Either we deal effectively with that issue – or we require hospitals to demand payment prior to treatment. Anyone who can't fork over the moolah (or doesn't have proof of insurance with them) can simply go away or die on the spot. Hmmm, apparently many of the so-called Christians posting on this board would approve this plan. Disgusting.

      June 28, 2012 at 12:27 am |
  17. Marley

    OBAMACARE = GOP-care written under Clinton

    The INDIVIDUAL MANDATE was a GOP idea because they don't like to use the word TAX.

    The INDIVIDUAL MANDATE is just another way of saying: a HEALTHCARE TAX for those who making a certain level of income but don't have healthcare insurance.

    That is why Mitt Romney copied the idea for his state.

    June 27, 2012 at 11:55 pm |
  18. Original LePhantom

    Who cares! This is American, folks. We take care of ourselves and we make no allowance for the poor, unemployed, sick, etc. Grab your little bag of rocks and face it like a man (or, woman). And, God forbid that we should offend the top 5% for they might stop trickling down to us.
    And, this is just one of the reasons I long ago realized that churches are nothing but social clubs for hypocrites:
    When he takes this message to churches, some shut their doors, he says. They don’t want to hear him. .....“A lot of pastors are just too afraid to get involved in this and step up and say this is a moral issue,”

    June 27, 2012 at 11:54 pm |
  19. tet1953

    Here is another startling statistic I read here on CNN a few weeks ago: In the absence of reform, health care costs are expected to rise over the next five years to reach 100% of the average family income. 100%!

    June 27, 2012 at 11:54 pm |
  20. gen

    I had to dropp my insurance because when I started working at one of the top salon chains in chicago area it used to cost me 300$ for family coverage now it is 1200$ that's is about half of what I make net monthly and I have a very physical job so no one can accuse me of being lazy, I am a massage therapist, I literally get the desire to run out of the dark hot room with light music from body ache and tiredness but I have to go on because I am too old to get an education and i'll admit I never was good in school....

    June 27, 2012 at 11:53 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.