A Sensitive Look at the Uninsured

Health care documentary drives home the financial crisis

The people portrayed in the new documentary Critical Condition, which aired on PBS this week, are experiencing financial crises of their own. They are seriously ill and cannot afford medical care. The bills mount; their health doesn’t get better. Those featured in the film are not rich Wall Street tycoons who lobby to keep their golden parachutes, nor are they up-and-coming masters of the universe who don’t think twice about health insurance. There’s Hector, who chooses to have his foot amputated while he still has health insurance, and Carlos, who is bleeding internally because he has taken too many over-the-counter pain killers to treat his painful back condition, and Joe, who cuts medical corners by not always taking his insulin.

The film covers familiar ground for those in the health policy establishment, and makes points that the health care cognoscenti already know, like how 80 percent of those without health insurance are working. But the terrain of the uninsured is still largely unexplored for the general public, and that’s why the film’s contribution is important. If reform is ever to happen, the public needs to keep hearing that real people are having real problems getting and paying for health care. “Critical Condition” makes that point with sensitivity and clarity, and lets people realize that there, but for the grace of God, go I.

New York Times TV critic Neil Genzlinger says the film is thinly veiled advocacy for universal health care, implying that that is somehow wrong. He also writes that viewers are led to believe that insurance is a pain-free panacea. In America, health insurance, much of it provided by employers or purchased in the private market by individuals, is the ticket to health care, and yes, it does reduce the stacks of bills people like those featured in the film face when they have a serious illness. That ticket is likely to be hotter than ever, and, indeed, the film reinforces what happens when people don’t have it. Critical Condition does not imply that insurance is a pain free solution, but, instead, shows how the lack of insurance hits those with low incomes the hardest—a truism the country is just beginning to understand.

Should we be talking about how we are going to finance care for everyone, as Genzlinger suggests? You bet. But there has been precious little discussion of that topic by the media during the campaign. Just how would a tax system work that would provide care for everyone? Just how do we say “no” to expensive and perhaps useless medical technology? Let’s hope those questions can be explored in a sequel to Critical Condition.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.