Health Insurance and Popular Culture

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Health Insurance and Popular Culture

You know issues involving health insurance and the health insurance “crisis” in America have really reached epidemic proportions when a subject as seemingly mundane as having access to affordable medical coverage appears as the plotline in popular movies and television series.

Probably the best known film to deal with the problems of managed care and denials of health insurance coverage was the Denzel Washington vehicle John Q. In the film the villain is not a demon possessing a young girl, an alien, or chain-saw yielding serial killer, its Denzel’s employer based health insurance that will not pay for his son’s heart transplant. The hospital will not perform the life-saving surgery without payment, so in a desperate effort to save his son, he takes the hospital hostage. In a survey that was conducted by the Kaiser Foundation soon after the movie’s release, more than 42% of the people polled thought it was an accurate portrayal, and that many times health insurance does not pay for situations as depicted in the movie.

The same survey found that 1 in 4 people said they got their news about health and health related issues form movies and television. A recent episode of ER brought to light the moral dilemma that doctors often find themselves in today when dealing with HMO’s and denial of coverage. In the episode the doctor was faced with the decision of seeing his patient not receive treatment or lying to the insurance company.

In the ER episode the patient was a 13 year old with cancer, who needed to be admitted to the hospital or die. His fictional health insurance provider would only pay for an admission to the hospital if the reason was beyond the boy’s cancer. The doctor was willing to lie to the insurance company by putting down a diagnosis of severe dehydration so the child would be admitted and therefore get the treatment he needed. On the show the mother found out about the doctors plans, and refused to let him go through with it. Her fear was the insurance company would find out and she would lose her medical insurance coverage and not be able to obtain affordable health insurance anywhere ever again. In a particularly dramatic scene, as she exits with her child a nurse turns to the doctor and says, "But what will happen to him if he goes home?" The doctor replied, "He will most certainly die very quickly."

While such accounts are fictitious, tend to demonize the insurance industry, and certainly take a fair amount of poetic license, they can go a long way to pointing out some of the issues that are problematical involving health insurance and healthcare today. The problem addressed in the ER episode of a doctor thinking they are doing the right thing by lying so that their patient’s treatments are covered by medical insurance is a very real one. It does happen, but it actually can do more harm than good if inaccurate information is made part of a patient’s medical history.

By the way in John Q, Denzel’s son is given the life savings transplant, and after his noble attempt at suicide to give up his own heart for his son, he is cleared of all but the most minor of charges – we can only hope that the 50 million American’s without access to affordable medical coverage will also somehow find a happy ending.