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June 2007: Health Care Executive Shocked at Sight of Americans Being Treated in Livestock Stalls, Tents

Wendell Potter, a senior health care executive with the insurance giant Cigna, visits a “health care exposition” in Wise, Virginia, not far from his home town. Potter is shocked at what he sees at the Wise County Fairgrounds. As he will later recall (see July 10, 2009), he assumed he would see booths set up for people to get their blood pressure checked and so forth. What he actually sees is doctors providing a range of care in livestock stalls and tents. Some patients are treated while lying on gurneys, under a rainy sky. “And I saw people lined up, standing in line or sitting in these long, long lines, waiting to get care,” he will later say. “People drove from South Carolina and Georgia and Kentucky, Tennessee—all over the region, because they knew that this was being done. A lot of them heard about it from word of mouth. There could have been people and probably were people that I had grown up with. They could have been people who grew up at the house down the road, in the house down the road from me. And that made it real to me.… It was absolutely stunning. It was like being hit by lightning. It was almost—what country am I in? I just—it just didn’t seem to be a possibility that I was in the United States. It was like a lightning bolt had hit me.” Potter will describe himself as “insulated” from the harsh reality of American health care before visiting the expo. “I had a great job. And I had a terrific office in a high-rise building in Philadelphia. I was insulated. I didn’t really see what was going on. I saw the data. I knew that 47 million people were uninsured, but I didn’t put faces with that number.… [W]hen you’re in the executive offices, when you’re getting prepared for a call with an analyst, in the financial medium, what you think about are the numbers. You don’t think about individual people. You think about the numbers, and whether or not you’re going to meet Wall Street’s expectations. That’s what you think about, at that level. And it helps to think that way. That’s why you—that enables you to stay there, if you don’t really think that you’re talking about and dealing with real human beings.” Potter finds it difficult to reconcile his executive lifestyle with relatives and neighbors being treated in livestock stalls. He will eventually resign his position with Cigna. [PBS, 7/10/2009]

Entity Tags: Wendell Potter, Cigna

Timeline Tags: US Health Care

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