Exploding The Myths About American Health Care

New documentary takes ‘world’s best’ system to task.

I don’t agree with Romney and Obama health care advisor Jonathan Gruber that Americans are stupid, but there is abundant evidence that we’re incredibly gullible. And we’re paying a big price for it. For the latest evidence, check out the documentary Remote Area Medical, which opens in select theaters across the country this coming Friday.

We’ve been told over and over again by politicians and flacks—including me in my previous career—that we have the world’s best health care system.  As I explained in Deadly Spin, if you continue to believe that no other country could possibly have a better system than ours, it’s because of the overwhelmingly successful PR campaign my former colleagues and I carried out over decades.

The purpose of that campaign—a campaign that’s ongoing, by the way—is to protect the profitable status quo by obscuring an empirical truth: that when it comes to access to affordable health care, millions of Americans might as well be living in a third world country. And that’s still true today, more than four years after Obamacare became law.

Although the Affordable Care Act is helping people find coverage that doesn’t bust the family budget, more than 30 million of us are still uninsured because the law doesn’t bring down the cost of insurance nearly enough.

You will meet a few of those millions in Remote Area Medical, which is named after the organization that former TV star Stan Brock founded 30 years ago to fly doctors to remote villages along the Amazon.

“Welcome to America,” Brock says early in the film as thousands of people wait patiently in long lines at the Bristol Motor Speedway in East Tennessee.

During many weekends in the spring and summer, tens of thousands of fans fill the seats at this racetrack, one of NASCAR’s biggest. But over three days in late April or early May every year, the Speedway is transformed into an enormous pop-up health clinic.

People start arriving days early and sleep in their cars and trucks in the vast parking lot in hopes of getting one of the numbers Brock hands out before dawn each day the clinic is in operation. Inside are doctors, dentists and other caregivers who have volunteered their time to treat the thousands of men, women and children, many of whom have driven hundreds of miles—and all of whom have fallen through the big cracks that continue to differentiate the U.S. health care system from those in every other developed country.

Brock had hoped health care reform would put his operation out of business. He’d like to return to the days when all of his medical “expeditions,” as he calls them, were to countries in South America, Africa and the Caribbean. While Remote Area Medical (RAM) still conducts some missions abroad, most of its clinics for the past several years have been in the U.S. And they still are. RAM’s schedule for 2015 includes 22 clinics, in locations from Anaheim, California to Grundy, Virginia.

Not all of those who show up at RAM clinics are uninsured. Brock told me that a growing number of folks actually have insurance. The problem is that they can only afford plans with high deductibles —deductibles so high they must pay thousands of dollars out of their own pockets before coverage kicks in.

The Affordable Care Act caps the amount of money people have to pay out of pocket each year—$6,600 for an individual and $13,200 for a family—but many folks enrolled in high-deductible plans simply don’t earn nearly enough to afford those high deductibles. The RAM staff frequently gets calls from budget-strapped folks in high-deductible plans who say their insurance companies have suggested they try to find a RAM clinic to get the care they need.

The documentary was produced and directed by Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman, a Brooklyn-based couple who first heard about RAM from Jeff’s aunt, a retired nurse, who had volunteered at a RAM clinic.  Intrigued, Jeff and Farihah decided to volunteer at a RAM clinic themselves.

“It changed us,” Farihah told me. “We knew we had to make a film about what our system has wrought.”

Unlike other documentaries about health care, Remote Area Medical doesn’t focus on politics.  “We wanted to get people to think about health care in a different way,” Farihah said. “It’s easy to have a knee jerk reaction (to the politics of health care).  What we wanted to do was make a film that shows what it’s actually like for people who can’t afford health care.”

Although the filmmakers offer no political point of view, they do hope lawmakers—including all those who contend we have the best health care system in the world—will see the film, either on the big screen or in March when it will be available on iTunes and Netflix. Better yet, the filmmakers would like to see lawmakers volunteer at a RAM clinic. Unfortunately, not many have done that yet.

Wendell is a senior analyst at The Center for Public Integrity where this first appeared on 12/1/2014.

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