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. http://barryozeroff.com

    You actually make it appear really easy along with your presentation but I find this topic to be really something that I feel I might by no means understand. It seems too complicated and very large for me. I am looking forward on your subsequent put up, I will try to get the cling of it!

    July 5, 2012 at 10:20 pm |
  2. UK Dave & the entire scientific community

    I am with the entire scientific community on this on! Today is just cause to celebrate! You've just found out that the God particle/Higgs boson is entirely predictable! This means that your life is entirely predictable! That you are expected to live or otherwise is decided by this one particle! Are you the entirely predictable type?
    Very predictably, I celebrated!

    July 4, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
    • mafia don

      Stay with the entire scientific community on this one UK Dave!
      Very predictably however, interfering schmucks like me are not permitted any reason to celebrate! 🙁
      We gatecrashed too many parties already! 🙁

      July 4, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
  3. UK Dave

    I'd like to invite disbelievers, but this deal's off!

    July 3, 2012 at 10:28 pm |

    If you want all prayers answered, go to Facebook(THE WOMAN'S TOUCH)!

    July 3, 2012 at 10:12 pm |
    • UK Dave

      Mmmm! I just love Facebook(THE WOMAN'S TOUCH)!

      July 3, 2012 at 10:29 pm |

    – Since I overcome everything, what are your complaints America?
    – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WWs1-NEV9O0 gets you by with a little help from your friends America!
    – Since I overcome everything, what are your complaints America?
    – Try Healthiest Regards in future!

    July 3, 2012 at 9:28 pm |

    – WHAT do you KNOW?
    – Independence?

    July 3, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
  7. UK Dave

    Pitch all your questions@Facebook(THE WOMAN'S TOUCH)!
    Stay girly@Facebook(THE WOMAN'S TOUCH)!

    July 3, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
  8. UK Dave

    Traffic dependin'! Amen!
    Naturally, the Germans want some money! Amen!

    July 3, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
  9. UK Dave


    July 1, 2012 at 9:45 pm |



    – Be alert!
    – This country needs lerts!

    July 1, 2012 at 9:04 pm |
  11. UK Dave

    A ton of fat walks into the treatment room & the doctor dies instantly!
    Fatman shouts "I demand a second opinion!"

    July 1, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
    • dumb mother

      LOL! This is the place to get your sense of humor back!

      July 1, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
  12. InAwe

    Very impressed....a Republican who has somehow developed a conscience? Goes to show that evolution continues. Darwin would be fascinated.

    July 1, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
    • GOPer

      Seriously, if you are ignorant enough to post that you don't deserve access to health care much less oxygen.

      July 1, 2012 at 8:50 pm |
  13. Jack

    Hello everyone. You are all cordially invited to visit – thestarofkaduri.com

    July 1, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
  14. Richard Perry

    Stop with the "Judas" subtext under the Wendell Potter story, you jerks. If anything of that ilk, it should be "St. Paul." (Check with you Sunday School teacher for reference.)

    July 1, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  15. Jesus the most powerful figure known to mankind (Fact)

    I can find no reason to doubt a guy who lived 2000 years ago to still be the most powerful man in the world. I can find no reason to doubt a guy whos words and actions are nothing but pure love. I can find no reason to doubt a guy who has had and still has more followers than any other leader in history. I can find no reason to doubt a guy who died in the place of deserving sinners. I can find no reason to doubt Jesus the living Son of God Almighty. Romans 1:20- "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse". John 3 vs 16-"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
    John 8 vs 47-"He that is of God heareth God's words: ye therefore hear them not, because ye are not of God.
    Matthew 22 vs 37-40-"Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." Very simple for true followers of Christ but complicated for those who do not belong to Him.

    July 1, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • chaz8181

      This is so true.. but we do not live in a "Christian country. We have many hypocrites living here who claim to be Christians, but basically we are not a Christian country.

      July 1, 2012 at 9:37 pm |
    • Glenn

      The American christian seems more interested in a position of authority than the words of Jesus. More interested in playing god in the name of god. More interested in their own wealth, no matter how great, than in the concept of universal medicine.
      I like to think the picture painted by the media is not that of the majority. That the leadership is not indictative of the country as a whole.

      July 2, 2012 at 10:31 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Glenn, I think you can be fairly certain that for every fallen pastor there are thousands standing upright who represent millions of devout Christians. Most of whom quietly serve in some capacity or another, using the gifts God has blessed them with as best they can without fanfare or scandal.

      July 3, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
  16. Cricket

    "Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissons of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference." FDR

    July 1, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
    • nadinesh

      Wow, that is a phenomenal quote! Thank you!

      July 3, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
  17. kate

    Thank you Wendell. We need people like you!

    July 1, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • AaaaCccc

      May the Lord bless you Wendall!

      The status quo was unacceptable. I found the same thing in talking to church members. they were so anti... That actually seeing the people, addressing the sufferring was impossible. I don't fully agree with the new plan, but it's movement and maybe if people like you keep trying to bring the debate out about people and the corrupted goals of insurance, we can make a plan that works.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
    • nadinesh

      Amen. It renews your faith in the eventual decency of people.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
  18. T-Max73

    The author fails to mention that his Jesus only (it is claimed) healed some of the sick and a few of the blind. The Jesus figure did not heal disease and blindness for all-making the idea of a loving and caring deity more than a bit questionable.

    "I find it curious how the invisible and the non existent look so much alike." ~Christopher Hitchens

    July 1, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • coyote

      Does that include invisible things like gravity?

      July 1, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • Martha Taylor

      T-Max73, thank you for your quote & your observation. I am neither knowledgeable or articulate, but I am a follower of Jesus Christ, so I hope to speak the truth with love, as He directed. In John 14:12, Jesus tells his disciples (following discussion of his miracles) that "anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father." Jesus (God among us) lived as a tangible, historical example of how it is possible for all humanity to live fully by loving God and loving one another. Jesus did not live to heal every person himself. Jesus lived to teach us how to heal ourselves and one other with love. And this, my friend, is indeed the way a loving God works.

      July 1, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
    • Martha Taylor

      T-Max73, I feel that I need to add that teaching and empowering is the way a loving parent works. This is the deity that Jesus shows us.

      July 1, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
    • John

      Would Christ want us to care for others? Absolutely! Would He set up a government program to do it? I think not. The Lord encouraged charity; He did not suggest that Rome or the Pharisees set up a taxation system to have government do it, resulting in more going into the pockets of bureaucrats than to the needy. It's not about Obamacare- it's about citizens doing it themselves, and getting the overwhleming, oppressive government out of the way to let people do the right thing with their own money.

      July 2, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • WWJD

      @coyote. Are you saying that apples don't fall to the ground?

      July 2, 2012 at 9:26 pm |
    • nadinesh

      Well, let's make it easier to get, John: if you consider universal health care a form of tax or forced charity, then the government is getting you to do exactly that. I am finding it utterly incredible that a person who claims to be a Christian could object to the decency of not allowing his neighbors to die so that he can have a swimming pool.

      July 3, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
  19. topgunairspace

    Reblogged this on topgunairspace and commented:
    more should follow his lead

    July 1, 2012 at 7:55 am |
    • booskoo

      Look at how FAT that woman is !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      Typical poor person.

      July 1, 2012 at 10:19 am |
    • Arvoasitis

      @ booskoo
      The problem of obesity among the poor is that their bodies crave nutrition but they feed it "comfort food" consisting of fats and sugars. I heard of a doctor who displays a photograph of a 450-pound woman on the verge of death from malnutrition. The epidemic problem of Americans is overwieight and undernourished.

      July 1, 2012 at 11:32 am |
    • Neal

      Arvoasitis is 100% correct. Read the book "Why We Get Fat and What To Do About It" by Gary Taubes for some valuable insights.

      July 1, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
    • AaaaCccc

      Have you ever shopped in a poor person's neighborhood store? I did to help them out. I was filled with unhealthy food, all processed. All the things that promote obesity. There were no healthy choices.
      Have you ever examined with politics of you public transit. Cuts usually happen first to the tranportation from poor neighborhoods to areas with decent stores and farmer's markets.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:04 pm |

    – Let's chat about grudges. America is a very grudge-driven society. America never could knock that chip off its' shoulders. Grudge-driven America has forced itself into one long series of very bad mistakes & these nasty grudges America is carrying are costing trillions & are forcing America down the pan. You have no healthy outlook if you're carrying nasty grudges. GRUDGES SPELL DOOM.
    Have you noticed that politics is also grudge-driven?
    Who else is grudge-driven?

    July 1, 2012 at 6:30 am |
    • Judas

      I can definitely see grudge-driven America!
      I'm looking at grudge-driven America right now!
      Grudge-driven America is definitely forcing itself into very deep misery!

      July 1, 2012 at 6:33 am |
    • jesus

      the world economy would collapse along with america, you do realize that, right?

      July 1, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • Nope!

      I think the word is G-R-E-E-D, friend!

      July 4, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
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About this blog

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.