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. Jim5k

    Thank you Mr. Potter. One of the few times I've agreed with man of faith. I'm an atheist disgusted by how little "conservatives" care about others.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:44 pm |
    • ib1sage

      You are in the 99% and I congratulate you in your comment as it is succinct.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
  2. fred

    Countries that have any form of nationalized health service have somethong else. What? Private insurance – because the nationalzed system isn't all that good. So you finish up with the same eituation. Poor health service and good health service (if you can afford it). BTW this bit about insurers bot being allowed to reject people with 'exising condiions'. Fantastic – have you seen the premiums they will charge for this privilege?

    June 27, 2012 at 8:44 pm |
    • awaysaway

      Except if you have everyone contribute (mandate) then you have a bigger insurance pool and it all works. Or we can go with what you suggest – third world relief organizations providing medical support in fields. You're a classy guy with no solutions.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
  3. Rags

    Regarding the very first picture in this article, do you agree that if that women lost several hundred pounds she might feel just a little better? Live a little bet better life? Get around a little bit better? Have a more healthy lifestyle? Not have varicose veins? Spend less for clothes? Spend less for fattening foods? Etcetera, etcetera.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
    • ib1sage

      Perhaps the wages her family earns only permits poor quality of eating/life. Don't make assumptions based upon a photograph.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:24 pm |
    • Tamooj

      Unless of course she just has a thyroid or gallbladder condition that makes it impossible for her body to get rid of fat. Can't tell from the picture, so let's just go with the stereotype, shall we? And if poor life-choices meant we shouldn't help them when they are suffering, let's just cut off all those cigarette smoking baby-boomers from medicaid, since we know for a sad fact that they cost 2500% more on average in healthcare costs because of smoking related illnesses. How about those people who 'chose' to work in a powerplant or factory with toxic chemicals – how come they get to leech off the system too? Once they get laid off due to out-sourcing, why should our tax dollars support them with freebie welfare and health care? This is especially true is they have brown skin.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:43 pm |
  4. Chad

    When Oregon parents Ariel and Deborah Levy had their third child and first daughter, Kalanit, they thought she was the “normal and healthy” baby they say they were promised after prenatal test results showed no irregularities. When they found out through a blood test after their daughter’s birth that she had Down syndrome, “It was devastating,” says the mother. Now, 4 years later, they’re suing the Legacy Health clinic, which the couple says made a mistake in the testing, giving them a false sense of security that their baby would be perfectly fine.

    The Levy couple says the clinic screwed up and actually tested tissue from the mother, not the baby, and that’s why the results came back normal. They’ve filed a “wrongful birth” lawsuit for $3 million dollars, saying had they known their daughter would be born with disabilities, they would have had an abortion.

    not happy with your child? Kill it..
    no words...

    June 27, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
    • pogojo

      Bad genetic makeup, they should not reproduce

      June 27, 2012 at 8:45 pm |
    • Joe Christianson

      Its their choice compadre. Not yours. Judge less you are not Jesus.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:47 pm |
    • ib1sage

      pogojo, the gene pool left something out in your makeup. Good people are not hateful! Pathetic!

      June 27, 2012 at 8:51 pm |
    • BooseyBoo

      I think that is a downfall of the "everyone is a winner" generation. If it isn't perfect and makes me happy then I don't want it.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:51 pm |
    • Chad

      @Joe Christianson "Its their choice compadre."

      =>what about Kalanit, does she get a choice?

      I thought killing people was murder?
      But, you're saying it's ok if it's a parent killing a child, and the child hasnt been born yet?

      June 27, 2012 at 8:51 pm |
    • ib1sage

      pogojo, the gene pool left something out in your makeup. Good people are not hateful! Take more drugs!

      June 27, 2012 at 8:52 pm |
  5. Tom

    If healthcare is a right then give us a public option to Medicaid! & make sure everyone understands that the cost of doing business in American means healthcare cost is included in all goods & services.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
  6. Jake

    So sad to know that in this country of immense wealth, so many live in misery, like beggers looking for something as basic as health care. It is a national disgrace that some would deny even something like this to so many who through no fault of their own suffer from major illnesses receiving substandard care.

    I applaud this man who turned his back on luxuries and who today speaks for those Americans cast aside by a health care system that is designed to serve the industry first. This is not a guy just with an opinion, but a man who knows the inner workings of this corrupt industry and is now labeled as a "judas" for speaking the truth.

    The Supreme Court has become a political circus, no longer representing the greater good, the common man, or just doing what is right. They should discard the robes and stop with the charade because that is what it is. The vote will be along party lines, not on justice or serving the people of this country.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
    • Rags

      Jake: A lot of people do this to themselves with no thought of the consequences. Then, when their own actions undo their health, they come to us for resolution to their own problems brought on by their own actions.

      Sorry but I have absolutely no sympathy.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:47 pm |
    • ib1sage

      Great and accurate blog Jake.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:49 pm |
    • J7

      Rags – The point is that Christians are supposed to have sympathy...and often don't.

      If 'you' don't have sympathy, that is between you and God.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:02 pm |
  7. russellbjerke

    Regardless of what this guy did and what his faith is, the attacks on Christians and the generalization of Christians is utterly stupid. The only thing atheists and secularists know about Christianity is what Bill Maher, Steven Colbert, and Jon Stewart tell them. And because they are entertainers, comedians, and profiteers that pander to the most mindless generation of youth in our country's history, their hate and disdain willl always be played off as humor and subtle disregard.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
    • christianbrother

      i an unfamiliar with the people you referenced as denouncing christians but i am familiar with christianity in america today and there is much to be criticized. go back and read the new testament again. don't just take your lessons from your pastors agendas.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:49 pm |
    • S. Loge

      Steven Colbert is a Catholic and Sunday school teacher. Jon Stewart is also a man of faith. Maybe all you know about "liberals" (i.e. anyone who doesn't believe the same as you) is what you hear on Fox News.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
    • wonslung

      "The only thing atheists and secularists know about Christianity is what Bill Maher, Steven Colbert, and Jon Stewart tell them."

      This is absurd. In THIS country most atheists and secularists were once christians. (also, it's very possible to be a secular christians in many regards.)

      June 27, 2012 at 8:57 pm |
    • J7

      Amen S. Loge.

      I am a Bible-reading, Jesus-following Christian who doesn't see anything Christ-like about the people who are anti-Obama, anti-universal healthcare, pro-hoarding "their" money.

      The Bible says what do you have that is yours? Everything that we have comes from God. Jesus told his followers to give everything they have to the poor and to follow Him.

      I posit that you are the one who has no idea what the Bible says.

      And, Jon Stewart? He's a modern-day truth teller, my friend.

      The truth shall set us free.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:04 pm |
    • ib1sage

      J7, my hat is off to you. A real Christian and I applaud you! Keep fighting the GOOD fight against the phony Christians.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:16 pm |
  8. Flashdog2

    Prediction: If the Supreme Court rules against Obamacare or whatever you want to call it, the insurance companies will have a green light. Within 5 years they will be charging and surcharing people with a BMI over 27. They will figure that they have not only congress and the courts in their pockets so who will stop them. It's already done for smoking...this is the next step...You heard it here first...

    June 27, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
    • ib1sage

      No question about it! And the Conservatives will be joyous as their stocks will be paying great dividends.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:04 pm |
    • ib1sage

      And the Conservatives will be joyous as their stocks will be paying great dividends.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:07 pm |
    • ib1sage

      Great comment!

      June 27, 2012 at 9:08 pm |
  9. cck99352

    The picture of that disgusting, pathetic, utterly gross fat woman (see the picture on the headline) reminded me of two things: one, she (and those like her) are the reason health care is in crisis, and two, why should I, or my tax dollars, pay for her utterly bad judgement and complete lack of self respect?

    June 27, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
    • David G.

      You forgot the 'o' in your name.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:45 pm |
    • Neeneko

      Because it brings down your own costs too.
      People suffer so you can pay higher costs, kinda loose-loose where the only 'victory' is you are doing relatively better then others. In an absolute metric though, you are not doing so hot.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:46 pm |
    • christianbrother

      some medical treatments cause patients to gain weight. some illnesses or disabilities cause people to gain weight. steroidal treatments frequently cause "moon face." she could also be quadriplegic. i am not a fan of fat people that make no effort to take care of themselves but lets use our brains here.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:47 pm |
    • Kevin

      Because if there is ever a cure for being a horse's rear, you may need help paying for it.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:54 pm |
    • ib1sage

      cck99352, is that your cell number? Or how about those who still smoke and you are paying for the additional costs in their health care. You lack logic and exhibit a lack of kindness toward your fellow man/woman. Ugly people are every where, including me, but are none the less human beings and deserving of health care.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:13 pm |
    • jojole

      You my friend, will be one of those 'surprise' deaths we hear about....the ones where the person jogged their WHOLE life and dropped dead right in the middle of a run. Keep looking at people different than you as 'problems' or 'not worthy' and YOU will be 'dealt a hand' you NEVER expected to receive.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:34 pm |
  10. SheilaKA

    I work in the insurance industry. I am all for access to insurance for everyone. However, those who CHOOSE not to buy insurance when they are young, "immortal" and healthy seem to expect to be able to buy it when they are sick and infirm. That's not how the system is supposed to work. Fortunately, I live in a state in which you can buy insurance even if you have health conditions that would preclude purchasing through the market carriers. I think that needs to be available to everyone...and we need sliding scale costs for those who are in severe financial straits. Right now, insurance carriers in my state pay into a pool to provide coverage to those who can't access insurance due to health conditions. That makes sense. Still, if you don't buy insurance until you are sick you are just contributing to the problem.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
  11. pogojo

    so poor people cannot get Medicade anymore?

    June 27, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
    • Jane

      How did u come to that conclusion? Not only will people still get Medicaid but it will be better funded in this bill.

      June 28, 2012 at 12:46 am |
  12. Mike

    This article makes a very important point: the truly faithful have compassion. Republicans collectively have no compassion and sacrifice their faith at the altar of individualism.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:41 pm |
    • Name*Chedar

      Republicans are rhe oddest idiot I have ever encounter. I don't even know how these group still exist in this modern American society and the developed world. Get rid of them.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:51 pm |
    • ib1sage

      and least we forget the alter of the dollar....

      June 27, 2012 at 9:19 pm |
  13. Adnan

    Good Job Mr Potter.

    If you can convince the GOP that every American should have access to health care, the problem will be solved.

    Let's see how the ruling comes tomorrow.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:41 pm |
  14. about time

    What a courageous move when he had to know so many ridiculous GOP types would be all over
    him with accusations. Many of them don't realize how close they are to being one of many themselves.
    Thank you for speaking out against incredibly loud voices who think that they speak for ALL in this country!
    They do NOT. Some of us think that healthcare should not be exclusive to a chosen few. It's embarrassing
    that we are the only industrialized nation that does not recognize the desparate need of some of our citizens.
    Thank you Mr. Potter!!! i wish there were more like you!

    June 27, 2012 at 8:41 pm |
    • russellbjerke

      Where do you come off saying healthcare is for a "chosen few"? I know countless people who forgo paying for healthcare insurance because they want: iPhones, internet, beer, cigarettes, pot, cable TV, absurd SUV's, tanning packages, designer jeans, big screen TV's, McDonald's 3-5 x per week, and on and on and on. Look around and ask yourself, "do people really want to pay for healthcare insurance, or do they just not want to justify it in lieu of everything else they want?"

      June 27, 2012 at 8:50 pm |
  15. ib1sage

    Where is the concern for our fellow human beings? So many of these blogs are without any empathy for conditions that people endure nor for those who are less educated or privileged. What kind of society are we bringing forth to the next generation? SELFISH and self centered sociopaths. If there is a heaven you for sure will not be there.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:40 pm |
  16. Manuel J.

    In the end, controlling costs AND our behavior are key.

    Obamacare does NOT address costs. The president has acknowledged this. For the rest of us, how many are exercising and controlling their eating habits? Not enough!!!

    Having insurance does not improve health. Taking care of one's self, decreases one's risk of serious illness.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:40 pm |
  17. musings

    He that has ears to hear, let him hear.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:39 pm |
  18. Mark Baird

    "not most of those taking advantage of the free medical care were likely farm workers and not here legally"

    And so now you are behaving just like the media, Fox News and CNN. It appears from the picture that they are good old Americans. If the media spent less time with news analysis (cable news, talk radio, etc.) and more time getting and reporting facts we, the citizens, could make better decisions, countering our motivated reasoning.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:39 pm |
    • T. Wagner

      Good old Americans that took no responsibility in they life or life style. Didn't take the advantage of a education that is given to every American for free. Had to many children when they couldn't even support themselves. Smoked and drank and did drugs. Didn't exercise or take care of they're health. Wasted money on cable and fancy rims for they're car. Didn't teach they're government paid for children the importance of an education and the list can go on.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:51 pm |
    • awaysaway

      @T. Wagner – ironically most illegals could correct your abuse of the English language. Get an education. Read some books. And then comment.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:05 pm |
  19. Tee

    Obvious illegal aliens.

    June 27, 2012 at 8:38 pm |
    • ib1sage

      You are so observant TEA as these are people that may be providing you with your vegetables and meat. Do they as human beings deserve less? You are lost! Pray for salvation...

      June 27, 2012 at 8:44 pm |
  20. Bad Karma

    The US Healthcare system is immoral, that's a recognized fact. Christians are selectively moral, that's a known fact!

    June 27, 2012 at 8:37 pm |
    • Mark Baird

      Where's the like button.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:39 pm |
    • MarineEngr

      Demanding your neighbor to provide you with healthcare because of your unwillingness to provide it for yourself is true immorality.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
    • ib1sage

      Really? How about the Christian Priest pedophiles? How about some of your ministers preaching hate against gays? Very Christian, very stupid...that is a fact!

      June 27, 2012 at 8:46 pm |
    • Bad Karma

      MarineEng...love thy brother as thyself...did you miss that lesson?

      June 27, 2012 at 8:49 pm |
    • Katherine

      You're right about what you say, Karma, with one exception ... these people are NOT Christian.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
    • ib1sage

      And so Katherine how can you tell this from a photo? You must be clairvoyant or perhaps just an idiot.

      June 27, 2012 at 8:57 pm |
    • ib1sage

      Marine Eng – Did you ever think that you are paying for it when you go to the Emergency room and find people without insurance being treated for colds, injuries etc.? You are paying for it DoDo! Check the high cost of Hospital care, it is built into it.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:01 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.