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By Umut Newbury
September 18, 2008

More than 20,000 Americans will die in 2008. The cause of their death will not be combat, traffic accidents or terrorism. They will die because they do not have health insurance.

In the 21st century, in the world’s richest nation, how that statistic doesn’t shock, deeply depress or simply upset Americans, is hard to comprehend. When Michael Moore released Sicko in 2007, the assumption about his film was that it would focus on uninsured Americans. Instead, Moore chose as his subjects those with supposedly “good” health coverage. Though he exposed how even the covered fall through the cracks tragically, Moore’s film didn’t have the impact it deserved. The mainstream media (the likes of Dr. Sanjay Gupta on CNN) decided the “fact-check” Sicko and argued that health care in Cuba wasn’t that much better than in the U.S. They emphasized how long the waiting lines in Canada were. So, the vast majority of Americans were persuaded once again that, even if their health insurance wasn’t saving their lives when they needed it, darn it, it was still better than that of foreigners.

What about the uninsured then? Two-time Academy Award nominee director Roger Weisberg takes us into the deep, dark underbelly of the life of 47 million Americans who do not have health insurance in his new film Critical Condition and it isn’t pretty. Weisberg’s brilliantly somber documentary is hard to watch. As well it should be, for anyone who has a heart or a soul. He takes us on a very personal journey of four patients and their families. These are not welfare-sucking, crack-addicted deadbeats the mainstream media would have us believe as the sole victims of lack of health insurance. All of them are working, tax-paying, law-abiding citizens. In fact, as Weisberg points out, the overwhelming majority (80 percent) of those without health insurance are working-class Americans. Let’s repeat that (if only for Lou Dobbs): Not immigrants, not illegal immigrants, but millions of Americans who work for a living have no health insurance.

Joe Stornaiuolo is a doorman from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He is diabetic and has a liver disease, though he never drank. When he was diagnosed with the illness, his employer decided he could no longer do his job. When Stornaiuolo lost his job, he lost his health insurance, too. When he couldn’t afford his medicine, he started skipping doses and got sicker and sicker.

Hector Cardenas is a warehouse manager in Los Angeles. His diabetes caused a foot infection that spiraled into gangrene. He had insurance through his job, but taking care of the gangrene was taking too long and eating up all his sick time. His doctor told him, “It’ll take four to five months to save your foot, but if you want to go back to work, we’ll have to cut your foot off.” Hector told his doctor to cut his foot off and still lost his job and his insurance.

Karen Dove, of Austin, Texas, and her husband Ronnie couldn’t afford health insurance. For months, she had abdomen pains. Doctors kept turning her away because she didn’t have coverage. Finally, she contacted the Cancer Society and got a call from a doctor’s office willing to see her. By the time she was diagnosed, her ovarian cancer was in Stage 3. “Most people with Stage 3 cancer will die,” said her doctor.

Carlos Benitez, a chef for a French restaurant in Los Angeles, has been living with chronic back pain and deformity of his spine for 15 years. He makes $45,000 a year, but decided several years ago to let go of his health insurance because he needed the extra money to raise his family. When he went to a free health clinic at the UCLA campus, he was told that he needed to go to a doctor immediately because the pain medication was making him bleed to death. He got a blood transfusion and escaped death, but no doctor in California would perform the surgery to fix his spine and end his pain, because he didn’t have the money.

Weisberg tells the stories of these families candidly. These are not political people trying to push a policy issue. Critical Condition reveals them as they are, regular, hard-working Americans with terrible health conditions, yet with very few options. Weisberg, though, has done his homework on the health care issue, and peppers the film with sharp statistics. When people like Carlos, Karen, Joe and Hector run out of options, they go into emergency rooms. Covering the bills of the uninsured like them, Weisberg tells us, increases the annual health insurance premiums of a family by $922 per year. He also points out that though the U.S. spends $2 trillion per year on health care, it still ranks 24th in life expectancy, 27th in infant mortality and that lack of health insurance is the sixth leading cause of death here.

With less than two months from the presidential election and just days before the first debate between the candidates, Critical Condition is timed perfectly. Weisberg’s film makes it painfully obvious that health care in the U.S. is no longer a problem — it is a crisis.

A new study published this week in the journal Health Affairs projects that Sen. John McCain’s health plan would cause as many as 20 million Americans to lose their health insurance through their employers in the next five years. Add that to the number of uninsured now, we might be looking at almost 60 million Americans without insurance —that makes one-fifth of the population without access to health care by 2013. In July, another study by the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution projected an initial rise in people with health coverage under McCain’s plan, but predicted the number would start to dwindle in a few years. The same study showed that Sen. Barack Obama’s plan would reduce the number of uninsured by 18 million in 2009 and by 34 million by 2018. Obama’s plan still falls short of universal health care coverage.

Critical Condition makes the viewer wonder why it is so forbidden to talk about single-payer, universal health care in this country. What are we so afraid of? What could be worse than 22,000 people dying every year? Surely, the two major presidential candidates will not have a chance to view this significant documentary before Election Day. But perhaps the mainstream media can take a look at it honestly, and make it a part of the debates. Or is it too much to ask to move beyond the critical issue of lipstick and take a look at what’s killing people and how to fix it?

Critical Condition

Directed by Roger Weisberg

83 minutes plus extras

Docurama Films 2008

Premieres on Sept. 30, 2008 on PBS

Justin on September 30th, 2008 at 6:52 pm 

I just watched the documentary on TV and it was so sad. Just as sad as Michael Moore’s SiCKO. In “Critical Condition” Karen Dove and Joe Stornaiuolo die from their ilnesses. That was just so, so sad. Karen had cancer and Joe had liver disease. They didn’t deserve to die so young.

Deepak on September 30th, 2008 at 7:44 pm 

“Critical Condition” points out just how sick our health care system really is. These uninsured men and women who are neglected by everyone are forced to neglect their own health. The story of a man who received Medicare only 2 days before his death was just sad. He had been suffering for years, during which time he may have been treated successfully if only he had insurance. Its a well-taken eye-opening documentary that should definitely be watched by even more people.

kelly on October 1st, 2008 at 9:19 am 

I ended up watching “Critical Condition” last night because I couln’t sleep. What a heart-wrenching tragedy! We can pay corporate CEOs $20 million, but these hard working, law abiding citizens suffer and die. Something is very, very wrong with our values. Karen summed it up with her observation that we are the richest country in the world, yet she couldn’t get the care she needed. I hope that this kind of reality receives greater exposure among our citizens. It is shameful what we are allowing to happen.

vbliix on October 23rd, 2008 at 2:39 am 


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