Highway 27 between Kingsport and Wise County, Virginia, was Wendell Potter’s Damascus Road.
It was July, 2007, and he’d taken a few days off from his high-powered PR job as mouthpiece for heath insurance giant Cigna. While he was visiting his family in Kingsport, he read in the local newspaper about an upcoming Remote Area Medical health care clinic in nearby Wise County. This was the first he’d heard of Stan Brock and his team of volunteer nurses, doctors and dentists, and when he read that people would be coming from as far away as Georgia and South Carolina seeking medical and dental care, he felt compelled to find out more.
So, he borrowed his daddy’s car and headed north, unaware that what he would see would eventually cause him to walk away from his high six-figure job.
“I had gotten so far away from how I was raised. People were lined up to get medical care in a barn. It shook me to my core and I made a decision that day to try to find another way to make a living.”
Today, Potter is variously described as a whistleblower, a consumer advocate, a New York Times bestselling author and a 20-year health insurance industry executive and former journalist.
So, this wouldn’t be the first career change for Potter, who’d served as editor of the Daily Beacon and was named a Torchbearer en route to a journalism degree from UT in 1973. He worked as a reporter for Scripps (then Scripps Howard) in Memphis at the now defunct afternoon Press Scimitar. He later covered state government in Nashville and moved on to the federal government beat in Washington, D.C., before getting a call from a prominent politician in Knoxville who planned to run for governor and offered Potter a job as a spokesperson.
Seeing this as his chance to get back home to Tennessee, Potter said yes to Jake Butcher.
They won the 1978 Democratic Primary, but lost the general election to Lamar Alexander. Potter stayed with Butcher and became an executive assistant and spokesperson to the United American Bank chief, who had decided to bring the 1982 World’s Fair to Knoxville. Potter traveled the world with Butcher selling the Energy Exposition. It was during this time that Potter met his wife, Lou Lloyd.
A big time was had by all at the World’s Fair during its six-month run, but the team of bank examiners that descended on Butcher’s banking empire (and that of his brother, C.H.) the following Valentine’s Day brought it all crashing down. The banks failed, the Butchers went to prison and Potter moved on to a public relations firm in Atlanta, and then returned to Knoxville when he took a job with Baptist Health Systems of East Tennessee.
In 1993, he was offered a job by Humana and subsequently landed an even bigger job with Cigna, where he would go on work with other PR professionals at the trade association level to craft public relations campaigns to protect the company’s image from critics large and small. They swatted down Bill and Hillary’s health insurance reform plan – remember Harry and Louise sitting around their kitchen table worrying about the “government takeover” of health care?
Potter had spent 20 years in health insurance by the time he had his RAM experience. That was also the year Michael Moore released his movie “Sicko,” which was a devastating attack on the health insurance industry. Potter was part of the effort to smear Moore, but he was wearing down, and in 2009 when the next Democratic president made his run at health care reform and politicians started using Potter’s own phrases (e.g. “government takeover”) to attack the reformers, Potter turned in his resignation and soon thereafter testified about the inner workings of the industry before a Congressional committee.
His first book, “Deadly Spin,” won awards and made best-seller lists. His second book, “Nation on the Take,” examines the effects of big money on politics.
Now he is in the process of launching Tarbell.org, which he describes as “The first nonprofit, nonpartisan and independent news organization for people who want to build a fairer, healthier and more equitable America.” Named for crusading journalist Ida Tarbell, Tarbell.org will launch a fundraising effort this fall. Potter hopes to raise $1.8 million for the first year’s operation.
And that will be a full circle return to journalism, his first professional love.