Roger WeisbergWith Critical Condition, Roger Weisberg takes an unflinching look at what it’s like to be sick and uninsured in America. He took a few minutes to answer some questions about his film and why health care and universal health insurance should be a critical issue during this election year. Critical Condition will have its broadcast premiere on POV in 2008.

POV: Tell us about your new film, Critical Condition.
Weisberg: I’ve made eight previous health care programs for PBS, but they were public affairs-style documentaries with narrators, lots of information, issue analysis, politicians, and other experts. For Critical Condition, I chose a cinema vérité style because I wanted viewers to vicariously experience the medical, financial, and emotional impact of being unable to obtain necessary health care. Instead of interviewing experts or policy makers who would tell viewers what to think, I wanted these disturbing stories to unfold through the experiences and words of our primary subjects. I believe that these narratives of uninsured patients in the midst of their own medical crises will engage viewers far more effectively than yet another recitation of grim facts and statistics.
I also chose to make Critical Condition now, because I wanted to help advance the cause of universal health insurance. I think we are on the brink of a rare historical opportunity to overhaul our troubled health care system, and my fondest hope is that Critical Condition can contribute to this effort at this opportune moment.
Critical Condition

Still from Critical Condition: Ronnie Dove comforts his wife, Karen, who faces an uphill battle with cancer in Austin, Texas because of a delayed diagnosis due to her lack of insurance. Photo by Heather Courtney

POV: Health care is one of the hot-button issues being debated in the 2008 Presidential Elections. Do you think the candidates are paying enough attention to the issue?
Weisberg: The public has consistently rated health care the most pressing domestic policy issue in the presidential election. Now that the economy is heading for a downturn, economic security also has risen to the top of the list, but as the stories in Critical Condition clearly illustrate, nobody is economically secure without health insurance. A job loss, pink slip, divorce, or a major illness can easily result in the loss of health insurance, and at that point, any illness can quickly become a financial calamity. The Democratic candidates have all spoken at length about health care, and they all have presented comprehensive plans to cover the uninsured. Although Senator Clinton’s and Obama’s plans differ in their detail — most dramatically over the necessity for an individual mandate — they have more in common than in conflict.

Sadly, the Republican candidates do not share the Democrats’ commitment to universal health insurance, and as a result, they are not as likely to discuss this issue at any length or in any real depth. Governor Mitt Romney and Senator John McCain both want to expand access to private health insurance with tax incentives, market forces, and individual health savings accounts, but nobody seriously believes that these measures will come close to covering the 47 million Americans without health insurance. It is revealing how far Mitt Romney has backed away from the innovative health care reform legislation he signed into law in Massachusetts.
Watch the Critical Condition Trailer:

POV: What do you want viewers and lawmakers to learn from Critical Condition?
Weisberg: I want viewers to understand that being sick and uninsured can cost you your job, health, home, savings, and even your life. By putting such a dire human face on the nation’s health care crisis, I hope to make viewers feel both outraged and motivated to address this national disgrace at the precise moment when proposals for universal health insurance will get the national attention they sorely deserve.
There are three ways I hope to get ordinary Americans, even those who are satisfied with their own medical coverage, to care about this issue. First, by bringing the stories of extremely sympathetic individuals to the screen, viewers will be forced to empathize with our subjects and realize that an illness or job loss could land them in a similar predicament. Second, by presenting access to health care as a moral issue, we can bridge the conventional partisan political divide, making viewers feel a collective sense of responsibility for their fellow Americans. Lastly, for viewers who need a hard-nosed cost benefit rationale for universal health insurance, our stories vividly illustrate the enormous cost in dollars and human suffering that we pay when the public ultimately foots the bill for catastrophic illnesses that could be inexpensively prevented with access to routine primary care.

POV: What websites do you think people should consult in making their decision on Super Tuesday in terms of comparing the candidates’ healthcare plans?
Weisberg: I would recommend:

The Commonwealth Fund
Families USA
The Henry Kaiser Foundation
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

POV: After making this film and spending so much time researching this issue, which candidate’s plan seems like the best plan to you? Why?
Weisberg: I think Senator Clinton’s plan offers the greatest promise of providing health insurance coverage for all Americans. She would achieve universal coverage by spreading the responsibility between government, business, and individuals. One of the most controversial features of her proposal is an individual mandate, which would require all citizens to acquire health insurance or face a fine. This plan is only workable if there are adequate subsidies for low-income Americans who cannot afford insurance coverage on their own. Despite the problems of enforcement, I don’t believe that we can achieve universal coverage without such a mandate. I also think Senator Clinton learned some hard lessons in the 1990s about how to reform an entrenched health care system that comprises one seventh of our nation’s economy.

POV: Michael Moore’s Sicko was recently nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary. Although Sicko and Critical Condition both take a look at the health care systems in the U.S., Critical Condition has a different focus, in that it examines the lives of those who are uninsured. Do you see the two films as complementary? What did you think of Sicko?
Weisberg: Unlike Michael Moore’s Sicko, which illustrated the problems of people with private insurance, Critical Condition looks at the harrowing struggles of people that must battle life-threatening illnesses with no insurance whatsoever.
I liked the part of Sicko that exposed how insurance companies behave and the lengths they will go to in order to avoid paying expensive medical claims. I also admire Michael Moore’s ability to inject some levity into an issue with such grim and dire consequences. However, once he traveled to Canada, England, France, and Cuba to compare their health care systems with ours, he lost me. Although I recognize that Moore is more of a polemicist than a journalist, I thought this part of his film was naïve. While there are certainly many lessons that the U.S. can learn from other countries’ health care systems, in his zeal to extol the virtues of universal insurance, I think Moore grossly oversimplified and trivialized the differences between the U.S. and other countries.

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Catherine Jhee was formerly a producer with POV Interactive.