Lesson Plan: The U.S. Health Care Crisis

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This lesson plan is designed to be used with the film Critical Condition, which tells the stories of four uninsured Americans as they battle illness over a two-year period. Classrooms can use this lesson to examine health insurance coverage in America and create public service announcements to connect the uninsured with free and subsidized health care services.

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By the end of this lesson, students will:

  • Use viewing skills and note-taking strategies to understand and interpret a video clip.
  • Examine a case study of one uninsured American's experience with the U.S. health care system.
  • Work in groups to develop strategies for distributing public service information that connects the uninsured with free and subsidized health care services.
  • Implement one of these strategies.


SUBJECT AREAS: Civics, U.S. History, Current Events, Language Arts, Health



  • Method (varies by school) of showing the class an online video clip
  • Computers with access to the Internet
  • Handout: Student Viewing Guide (PDF file)
  • Materials for creating public service announcements (will vary by medium selected)


ESTIMATED TIME NEEDED: Two 50-minute class periods



Clip 1: Karen Dove (length 4:43)
The clip begins at 12:38 with the text card "Karen Dove, Austin, Texas" and ends at 17:31 with the text card "Over 80% of uninsured Americans like Karen and Ronnie are."

Clip 2: Karen Dove (length: 7:30)
The clip begins at 29:15 with an exterior shot of the hospital and ends at 36:45 with the text card "Uninsured patients like Karen are 25 percent more likely to die than insured patients."

Clip 3: Karen Dove (length 6:45)
The clip begins at 56:10 with the quote "When you don't have insurance..." and ends at 102:55 with the text card "Over half a million Americans are currently battling cancer without insurance."

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More than 47 million Americans do not have health insurance. This situation has caused a national health crisis that has an impact on individual health, family stability and the nation's economy. Consider the following statistics:*

  • The lost productivity of uninsured Americans costs the economy up to $130 billion dollars a year -- more than the estimated cost to cover the uninsured.
  • Covering the bills of the uninsured increases annual health insurance premiums for the average family by $922.
  • Sixty percent of uninsured adults had to forgo medical care this year.
  • Every year, 22,000 Americans die prematurely because they lack health insurance.
  • Among nonelderly adults, the lack of health insurance is the sixth leading cause of death in America.

This lesson features the struggles of Karen Dove of Austin, Texas, who had health insurance when she was working as an apartment manager. However, her deteriorating health made it hard for her to do her job, and she was forced to quit. Then Karen started having severe abdominal pains. Some doctors wouldn't examine her because she didn't have insurance. When she finally found a doctor that would see her, Karen was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer, which is almost always fatal. Had she been diagnosed earlier, she may have been able to pursue less expensive treatments to keep her cancer from progressing. To treat her cancer, Karen underwent surgery and chemotherapy. Her medical bills rose to around $80,000. (Her family income was only $16,000 the previous year.) Karen was too sick to work and eventually began receiving Social Security Disability payments, but that money made her ineligible for Medicaid. She also was required to wait two years before receiving Medicare. In order to pay some of her medical bills, Karen and her husband, Ronnie, sold many of their belongings and moved to a less expensive house. In addition, she was unable to afford certain treatments and medication. Her cancer went into remission, but recurred a year later. She passed away in March 2008.

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  1. Ask students what they think are the top 10 leading causes of death in the United States. Allow students to share their ideas, then tell them that the lack of health insurance is the sixth leading cause of death in America among nonelderly adults.
  2. Explain that more than 47 million Americans cannot afford health insurance. This situation often prevents people from getting the medical care they need, which can lead to health conditions that keep them from gainful employment. Ultimately, those medical bills often go unpaid, raising the premiums of those who are insured.
  3. Tell the class that you are going to show some video clips that illustrate the struggles of an uninsured American named Karen Dove from Austin, Texas. Then pass out the Student Viewing Guide and watch the clips. (Note: Before the third clip, you may wish to explain the benefit programs Social Security Disability, Medicare and Medicaid. See the "Resources" section below for more information.) After watching Clip 3, inform the students that although Karen's cancer went into remission after her initial treatment, it recurred a year later and she passed away in March 2008.
  4. Review student responses to the questions in the Student Viewing Guide. Emphasize the ways in which being uninsured had an impact on her health and well-being.
  5. Listen to the POV podcast, Health Care for the Uninsured. Ask students to note what kinds of services can help those who are currently uninsured. Then go to the Free Health Care Mash-Up Map on the POV website and display the information for your area.
  6. Visit the "Cover the Unisured" website (here) and download your state guide to health care options for uninsured and underinsured Americans. Ask students to note what kinds of services can help those who are currently uninsured.
  7. Facilitate a class brainstorming session that results in a list of strategies for distributing public service information that connects the uninsured with the free and subsidized health care services named in the "Resources" section. Examples of these strategies might include flyers, text messages, posters, emails and so on.
  8. Break students into groups of two or three and ask them to work together to create a public service announcement and distribute it using one of the strategies brainstormed by the class.

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Students can be assessed on:

  • Completion of the Student Viewing Guide
  • Participation in class discussions and the brainstorming session
  • Quality of their public service announcements
  • Implementation of one of the distribution strategies

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  • Explore how other developed democracies around the world have been able to provide health care for all of their citizens. Begin by reviewing the four basic models of health care systems summarized on the website for Frontline's "Sick Around the World" series. Then listen to some of the stories included in NPR's special report, Health Care For All, evaluating health care coverage in a number of European nations and determine which model is used by each country mentioned. Identify the pros and cons of each country's approach and discuss what strategies could work well in the United States.
  • Have students use KQED's online devil's advocate quiz You Decide: Should the United States Adopt a Single-Payer, Universal Health Care Plan? to help them determine where they stand on universal health care. Ask students the key question in step 1 of the quiz. Have those who answer "Yes" go to one side of the room and those who answer "No" go to the other side. If any students aren't sure, they can stand in the middle. Then read the arguments in each step of the quiz and allow students to change their physical position if they hear something that weakens or strengthens their stance on the issue. After the activity, have the students make observations about what happened and describe if/how their perspective changed during the quiz.
  • Look more closely at racial and socioeconomic inequalities in health. The website that accompanies the series Unnatural Causes provides video clips, reports and community stories that students can use to put together news stories for distribution on a medium that works best for your class (i.e., print, podcast, video or blog).

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The Uninsured in America: Glossary
Refresh your knowledge of health care terms with this handy glossary from the NewsHour.

Social Security Administration
Find out more about the government-sponsored benefits mentioned in this lesson:

Disability Benefits

What Is Medicaid?

What Is Medicare?

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These standards are drawn from "Content Knowledge," a compilation of content standards and benchmarks for K-12 curriculum by McRel (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning) at http://www.mcrel.org/standards-benchmarks/.


Standard 14: Understands issues concerning the disparities between ideals and reality in American political and social life.

Standard 21: Understands the formation and implementation of public policy.

Standard 27: Understands how certain character traits enhance citizens' ability to fulfill personal and civic responsibilities.


Standard 1: Knows the availability and effective use of health services, products and information.

Language Arts

Standard 9: Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media.

U.S. History

Standard 31: Understands economic, social and cultural developments in the contemporary United States.


Cari Ladd, M.Ed., is an educational writer with a background in broadcast journalism, secondary education and media development. Previously, she served as PBS Interactive's Director of Education, overseeing the development of curricular resources tied to PBS programs, the PBS TeacherSource website (now PBS Teachers), and online teacher professional development services. She has also taught in Maryland and Northern Virginia.

» Critical Condition by Roger Weisberg;
» "Insuring America's Health: Principles and Recommendations," report brief from the Institute of Medicine (January 11, 2004)
» "Paying a Premium: The Increased Cost of Care for the Uninsured," Families USA (June 8, 2005)
» "From 'Soak The Rich' To 'Soak The Poor': Recent Trends In Hospital Pricing," by Stan Moser. Health Affairs (May 11, 2007)
» "Wrong Direction: One Out of Three Americans Are Uninsured", Families USA, (September 2007); Additional info from American Cancer Society: Insurance Status Linked to Cancer Outcomes