NEW YORK — There’s a new villain in Hollywood: the health industry.
In the movie “John Q,” opening Friday, a bureaucrat refuses to place the title character’s son on the list for a donor heart because his family can’t afford the $250,000 transplant operation. The boy’s loving father, played by Denzel Washington, becomes a vigilante, taking the hospital’s emergency room hostage.
Despite the melodrama and exaggeration of what patients and their families face, “John Q” resonates because we know the bad guy, too. We may not have a dying child, but who hasn’t had a health care claim denied? Who hasn’t worried about losing their job-based health insurance? Or filled an outrageously priced prescription? Or endured the rushed advice of a condescending doctor?
In a society where some 45 million people have no health insurance, at least 39 million are underinsured and health care costs are primed to jump — once again — roughly 16 percent this year, anyone who takes on Big Medicine makes a great hero.
It’s not just happening in movies. In hit television shows and best-selling books, the enemy these days is as likely to be the maker or dispenser of legal drugs as illegal ones.
“Consumer concerns about health care and drug costs has reached a critical mass. Popular culture responds to changes and concerns in peoples’ attitudes,” said Robert Thompson, a professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University. “Dealing with health care is an experience everyone has. It gets deep into our emotional being.”
Money-hungry pharmaceutical executives take the place of Communist spies in John Le Carre’s most recent novel “The Constant Gardner.”
On TV’s “Law and Order” last month, a father kills a health insurance executive who denies authorization to pay for a very expensive drug that could save the man’s dying daughter. (The program ends with a hung jury.) And a recent episode of “ER” highlighted questionable marketing practices of drug makers. A pharmaceutical company sends free food to the hospital, and a doctor chastises her colleagues for eating it, suggesting the freebees could influence prescribing habits. (A plot twist: those who dig in get food poisoning.)
The health industry dismisses the new Evil Medicine story line as, at best, simplistic pandering. At worst, they say, it’s an incitement to violence.
Still, the American Association of Health Plans, a Washington, D.C.-based trade organization, is opting for damage control. On Friday it will begin an advertising campaign to divert the anger away from the medical profession and toward other popular targets: politicians and lawyers. The ads say runaway litigation and government regulation contribute to skyrocketing health care costs and the growing number of uninsured.
Karen Ignagni, the organization’s president, also noted that “laying down violence as a solution is completely irresponsible in light of what this country has been through.”
“John Q” director Nick Cassavetes said his movie addresses an important issue but shouldn’t be seen as an apology of violence.
“We don’t want people using guns to get what they want. It is wrong. John Q should go to jail and he does,” Cassavetes said.
“We are facing an immediate crisis that we need to address before anything bad happens,” he said. “Once only the rich can afford health care, the poor are going to start making some noise so better we hear it now.”
Cassavetes was drawn to the script because his 13-year-old daughter has heart disease and will eventually need a heart transplant. “I would pray I would never do what John Q does, but if someone could help my daughter and refused, well, those people would have a very serious problem on their hands,” he said.
Not that you could tell by the movie, but Cassavetes said his experiences with the health care system have been reasonably good. He has excellent insurance, he said, and certainly can afford out-of-pocket costs.
He’s no John Q, a factory worker whose insurance doesn’t cover transplants. Even when he sells everything he owns and his church pitches in, he can’t afford the operation.
John Q has to be the kindest vigilante in movie history. It’s the doctors who are portrayed as greedy, failing to conduct tests to secure big bonuses from HMOs.
Anne Heche, as the coldhearted hospital administrator, may be the nastiest person in health care official since Nurse Ratched in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Her worldview: People get sick; they die — that’s the way it goes.
The “Law and Order” episode focused on an actual drug called Gleevec. Hailed as a breakthrough cancer treatment when it was approved last year, the drug costs between $2,000 and $2,500 a month.
The episode does its best to portray the slain insurance executive as a man trying to give care within the confines of his company’s resources. But the father who kills him also is portrayed sympathetically.
“I didn’t want to indict the health insurance industry,” said the show’s head writer, Barry Chindel. “The industry has to say no sometimes. If there is only $1 you can only spend it once. Sometimes people get the short end of the straw.”