Jewish World Review Feb. 19, 2001 / 7 Adar 5762

Clarence Page

Clarence Page
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Consumer Reports

Hollywood's new villain: Your HMO -- HOLLYWOOD has found its own "axis of evil." It is not drug lords, the Red Menace or the Klingons.

It is managed health care.

In "John Q," which opened Friday, Denzel Washington plays John Q. Archibald, a peace-loving father and working-class Everyman, until his employer-sponsored health plan fails to cover the $250,000 heart transplant his son needs to stay alive.

With his son's life hanging in the balance, frustration drives John Q to put the hospital "under new management" at gunpoint. Police surround the place. So do TV cameras. Sympathetic bystanders cheer him on. It's "Dog Day Afternoon" with a kid's life, instead of a bank robbery, at stake.

Despite widespread revulsion since Sept. 11 over the sort of terrorism that this plot summary sounds like, Hollywood moguls have good reason to think this story will lure a lot of backsides into theater seats. It is hard to go broke, it seems, by demonizing health insurers.

Some audiences broke out in applause over Helen Hunt's character's cursing tirade against HMOs in "As Good As It Gets." Matt Damon milked similar reactions as the young lawyer who goes after a cold-hearted health insurance company that doesn't want to pay for a dying boy's treatment in the movie version of John Grisham's "The Rainmaker."

Warren Beatty in "Bulworth" plays a Washington politician who disregards campaign contributors, stops playing the Washington political games and launches a serious crusade to get universal health care. Washington regulars take all of this as evidence that he has gone insane, which, in fact, he has.

With its popularity down somewhere near that of Enron stock, the HMO industry is trying to put a good face on the bold assault waged by "John Q." As the movie opened, the American Association of Health Plans launched a newspaper ad campaign with the headline: "John Q/ It's not just a movie/ It's a crisis for 40 million people who can't afford health care."

Then the ad deflects the movie's fire to a new target: "Instead of offering solutions, some in Washington are making the problem worse - pointing fingers and even proposing new laws that will make it harder for employers like John Q's to provide quality, affordable health care. Sometimes it seems like health plans are the only ones trying to make health care more affordable."

That last little sentence aims to turn the industry's biggest lemon into lemonade. To make health care more "affordable," you have to cut costs, which means some people are denied care.

Which is why, as exaggerated as the melodrama of movies like "John Q" may be, it resonates with audiences as a familiar nightmare: health plan anxiety.

At least 40 million Americans were uninsured at the end of January, according to government estimates. Another 39 million are considered underinsured. Two million lost their health insurance in the last 13 months as unemployment rose and health care costs are expected to jump about 16 percent this year.

A week before "John Q" opened, the problem of the uninsured brought major union and corporate heads together in a coalition campaign called "Covering the Uninsured" to declare a "crisis" and announce their joint lobbying effort for change.

Yet, despite their earnest declarations, the leaders of the groups, which included the U. S. Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO and the American Medical Association, admitted that they could not agree on a solution.

Like Congress, big labor and big corporations seem to be looking for leadership in finding a way out of our national health coverage woes. The big political problem for the uninsured is that they don't have a powerful lobbying group in Washington that can focus on their agenda.

In a speech to doctors in Milwaukee a few days before "John Q" opened, President Bush announced a $300 billion, 10-year health care reform proposal. Like his earlier proposals, it is a reform, not a revolution.

Among other goals, it would expand medical savings accounts to help people pay doctors' bills and offer new tax credits of up to $1,000 for individuals and $3,000 for a family to help the uninsured pay for coverage. He also is proposing to spend an additional $190 billion for Medicare over the next decade.

Not surprisingly, Democrats and some Republicans say these and other proposals in the Bush plan are inadequate for the growing needs they try to meet.

Still, the Bush proposal contains the seeds of an achievable compromise. The real question is whether Bush, who came somewhat reluctantly to the health care debate, can cut taxes, fight a war, raise defense spending and fix the cracks in our national health insurance system at the same time. Miracles like that don't even happen in the movies.

Comment on JWR contributor Clarence Page's column by clicking here.


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