PHILADELPIHA MAGAZINE: Even by the biblical standards of come-to-Jesus moments, the day Wendell Potter got woke was nothing short of miraculous, in the old-school, divine-intervention meaning of the word. The year was 2007, and Potter was the vice president of corporate communications for Cigna, the global health insurance behemoth then headquartered in Center City. As such, he was, in essence, a handsomely paid apologist in a for-profit health insurance system that — in the dark age that preceded the signing into law of the Affordable Care Act — routinely left more than 40 million Americans without coverage, resulting in nearly 45,000 premature deaths annually.
Among Potter’s duties were writing official-sounding white papers meant to minimize the problem and shift blame to the uninsured, and crafting reform-killing talking points for the health-care lobby’s congressional stooges to repeat into the cameras of Fox News and CNN. He was part of the effort to smear Michael Moore and discredit Sicko, the filmmaker’s 2007 gloves-off exposé of the iniquities of the health-care industrial complex. Yet every day, he left the plush confines of his Main Line home, took the R5 into the city, and rode the elevator to the richly appointed executive suites of Cigna’s corporate headquarters on the 16th floor of Two Liberty Place with the firm conviction that he was going to bat for the angels — healing the sick, mending the broken, resurrecting the dying. So it came as quite a shock to learn that he had been playing for the other team all along.
In July of that year, Potter flew south to visit his parents in Kingsport, Tennessee. It was there that an article on the front page of the Kingsport Times-News jumped out at him: An organization called Remote Area Medical — essentially a U.S.-based Doctors Without Borders that brings pop-up medical clinics to the health-care deserts of rural America — was staging its annual Health Expedition at the nearby Wise County Fairgrounds, just across the state line where Virginia jigsaws into Tennessee and Kentucky. Every year, the article said, thousands of uninsured working poor ventured out of the hollows of Appalachia to receive free medical and dental care. They came from hundreds of miles away, camping in the middle of the night to get a good spot in line to be treated for ailments — in makeshift triage units set up in repurposed livestock stalls — that had been left to fester for upwards of a year. Potter, who theretofore didn’t personally know anyone who didn’t have health insurance, found it hard to believe something like this was necessary in the richest country in the world.
This he had to see.
He borrowed his father’s car and drove the 54 miles to Wise County. For the lion’s share of the trip he drove U.S. Route 23, but he was, for all intents and purposes, on the Road to Damascus. The scene that greeted him at the Wise County Fairgrounds was staggering: hundreds and hundreds of sick and ragged waiting in line for one of the animal stalls to come open so they could get badly needed medical attention for ailments that prayer and faith healers couldn’t fix. It was like a giant MASH unit pitched in the middle of Appalachia, one front in America’s ongoing civil war between the have-everythings and the have-nothings. There were dozens of men and women and children lying on gurneys on the ground in various states of undress, undergoing intimate procedures in the open air, partly veiled by makeshift walls made of bedsheets. Surrendering all dignity was the price of admission. It was a shattering experience for Potter. Tears streamed down his face as he wandered through the carnage. He had no earthly idea it had come to this, that it had gotten this bad. And, as a health insurance executive, he was undeniably complicit. MORE