Critical Condition

It was impossible for me to watch Roger Weisberg’s health care documentary, Critical Condition, without thinking about the current economic crisis. While much of the turmoil this week has focused on the collapse of several major banks and insurance companies, John McCain published a little-noticed article in Contingencies, the magazine of the American Academy of Actuaries, in which he argued that “Opening up the health insurance market to more vigorous nationwide competition, as we have done over the last decade in banking, would provide more choices of innovative products less burdened by the worst excesses of state-based regulation” (credit goes to Paul Krugman for calling attention to it). We’ve all seen how deregulation worked for the banking industry this week, but McCain’s comments merely echo a more general cynicism about the role of government in protecting its citizen against the excesses of Wall Street and the health care industry.

But rather than engaging specifically with health care policy, Weisberg deliberately underplays the righteous indignation and policy wonkery (although the film quietly argues for a more humane health care system), choosing instead to place a human face on the health care crisis by introducing us to four uninsured Americans who are dealing with potentially fatal illnesses or with chronic health problems. All of them are employed, taxpaying citizens who contribute to the system. But they are among the 47 million U.S. citizens who do not have health insurance, and they are all faced with overwhelming medicals bills, sometimes ranging into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. In the case of Joe Stornaiuolo, a charming former doorman who develops cirrhosis and deals with diabetes, a lack of insurance turns a treatable condition into a potentially fatal one when he cannot afford the medication to regulate his condition. Joe’s story alone refutes the claim of McCain adviser, John Goodman, who has asserted that because of the availability of emergency rooms, there are essentially no uninsured Americans.

Equally compelling and, in some cases, heartbreaking are the film’s other three stories: Karen Dove, a property manager from Austin, Texas, develops ovarian cancer and faces chemotherapy while uninsured, leading her to consider divrcing her husband of thirty years if it will reduce their financial burden. Hector Cardenas is forced to have his foot amputated after complications related to diabetes but loses his insurance when he exhausts his sick days at his job as a warehouse manager, which also leads to him losing his meager benefits. Carlos Benitez, who works as a chef, also has a painful degenerative back condition that could be treated with surgery, but without insurance the operation would cost over $100,000. Carlos considers getting the surgery in Mexico, which would cost $40,000, allowing the film to point out that thousands of Americans cross the border every year to get cheaper medical treatment.

I’ll admit that I found some aspects of Critical Condition a little frustrating. The transitions between stories, which were punctuated by a generic Muzak-type score, felt disruptive to me, taking away from the film’s contemplative, observational style, and I think that material could have been delivered more effectively as a voice-over, perhaps, but that is the smallest of quibbles. To my mind, what counts is the fact that Weisberg genuinely allows us to get to know the families involved, to see these four uninsured people in their daily lives, often over the course of a couple of years.

Much like Michael Moore’s Sicko, Critical Condition reminds us of the absurd choices people are forced to make in order to preserve their health. Get a paper divorce to reduce medical costs? Cross the border to get surgery at a significantly reduced cost? Take expensive pills or fall behind on your mortgage? While Critical Condition lacks the historical grounding that I found valuable in Moore’s film (the history of HMOs, in particular), the film illustrates the degree to which so many health insurance organizations place profit over care, while also illustrating the fact that in the long run, we end paying more when people don’t have adequate access to health care, not merely financially but morally as well.

Update: Critical Condition will be broadcast September 30 at 9 PM as a part of PBS’s POV series.


  1. Jim Rohner Said,

    September 24, 2008 @ 2:27 pm

    If you’ve seen the film and are interested in listening to a podcast interview with director Roger Weisberg, then head over to Zoom In Online:

    The podcast was recorded after the film’s premiere at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival in New York City.

  2. Chuck Said,

    September 25, 2008 @ 9:46 am

    Hi Jim, thanks for the tip. I’ll try to give it a listen soon.

  3. Ed Dinnany Said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 9:38 pm

    It is amazing we can find 700 billion to bail out Wall street but we let 22000 die for lack of health care and 47 million people without health insurance. We have sick priorities. Pete Seager dreams we some day will have fully funded education and have to have a bake sale to build a battleship.

  4. Amanda Said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 10:13 pm

    I am from England were we have health care,it may not be perfect but you do not have to worry about paying your hospital bill,or not getting your medicine.The health care system here is disgusting.


    September 30, 2008 @ 11:28 pm

    Here’s what I don’t understand…why does medical care cost so much? Where does the money from one $350,000 operation go to? What REALLY upset me were the doctors! How could they pretend to care about people, but support and defend a system no one can afford? Why should an aspirin in the hospital cost $50? Sure, the insurance companies can negotiate it down to $5 a pop…but why that price in the first place? It’s not like the hospital goes out and rents the equipment specifically for each singular operation. Why should segments of our society GET RICH on the adversity of other PEOPLE? Why does medication cost so much? I do not believe people only do drug research to get rich! The people doing the acutal work, do it for the love of knowledge. The FAT cats, drug company execs, insurance companies, investors, hospital administrators and investors (yes, the ones looking for a 700 billion $ bail out) manipulate these costs to line their sizable pockets and it’s time for our government to STOP it! This IS NOT the free market at work. It’s the Carnegies and Rockefellers sticking it to the rest of us, all over again! Only anti-trust laws and unions stopped them and we need a major societal shift again!

  6. Chuck Said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 7:41 am

    Agreed on the bailout and its relationship to health care. It’s amazing how most people in the major media outlets have made virtually any other alternative to bailing out Wall Street unimaginable.

  7. The Chutry Experiment » Documenting Health Care Said,

    August 22, 2009 @ 12:12 pm

    […] access to health insurance.  Thanks to a POV screener DVD, I saw the film a few months ago and appreciated it, but as the rhetoric over reforming health care heats up, I think Critical Condition might be an […]

RSS feed for comments on this post