Questions for ‘Critical Condition’ Filmmaker Roger Weisberg

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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.

Catherine Jhee
Catherine Jhee
Catherine Jhee was formerly a producer with POV Interactive.
  • sophie Guintrange

    FOREIGNID: 15380
    I would like to know where I can find the dvd of Critical Condition .

  • Susan Bergman

    FOREIGNID: 15381
    I haven’t seen the film yet, but reading the film makers comments compells me to respond. The only way to truly address this issue and overcome the severe problems that exist now is to remove the health insurance industry from the solution and cosequently, the profit motive. As long as they remain in the loop we will continue have issues of rising costs and under- or uninsurance. Both Clinton (who has taken a lot of campaign money from this industry) and Obama continue to include this sector in their solution. This may be politically feasible for them to win the election, but it is not economically nor morally the approach that can truly solve the issue. Having a single payer system is the only certain way that ALL are covered with comprehensive plans that will not lead to bankruptcy or needless loss of life, while at the same time, save money that can be used directly for health care, not administrative overhead, paperwork, profitteering and inflated executive salaries.

  • Rhonda Allenson

    FOREIGNID: 15382
    The health care issue is complicated to say the least. Healthcare has always been a hot button, but nothing ever gets resolved, Everything is blamed on rising health care costs for which the individual consumers take the hit resulting in more and more individual consumers becoming uninsured or underinsured. What I don’t understand is why our society is allowing this to happen. Here are some causes/issues you never hear about, yet they are allowed to take place:
    1. Let’s look at how poor quality of care impacts rising health care costs. Our health care system is so fragmented with a lack of accountability. However, one misdiagnosis costs our health care system millions of dollars. If we addressed that issue, maybe we wouldn’t be in such a health care crisis, and more people would be able to have insurance.
    2. Insurance companies spend millions of dollars on resources all designed on how to collect premiums and deny claims. Everything from scrutinizing your history to find something in your history that you forgot to mention, if you have other insurance,and the list goes on and on.
    Until we depower the insurance companies and increase physician accountability – things will continue to get worse. So tell me …what good is technology when we have litlle to no access or poor quality of care.? Other than the wealthy, who will be able to afford and received healthcare??
    Very sad…..

  • Jim Rohner

    FOREIGNID: 15383
    The film isn’t out on DVD yet, but it is airing on PBS on September 30th so everyone check your local listings to see where you can scope it out.
    If you liked this article, then head over to Zoom In Online to listen to a podcast interview with Roger recorded when “Critical Condition” played at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival in New York City:

  • Paul

    FOREIGNID: 15384
    At the end of the program, when Mr. Weisberg stated that he wanted to move people into action, well, I can only say that he did with me and my wife. While watching, we have committed ourselves to starting a 501(c)(3) for the working uninsured in Delaware. Mr. Weisberg has focused attention on a national tradgedy, Karen and I would like to do what we can do to help alleviate this problem in our state, the First State, and perhaps build an example for others. We would love to hear from Mr. Weisberg for his thoughts and guidance on our mission.

  • Durga Dingari

    FOREIGNID: 15385
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    I have seen the program ‘Critical Condition’, it’s so close to what happens to people who don’t have insurance. I’m an Idiopathic Chronic Pancreatitis patient. I went through all the surgeries but I ended up with feeding tube and Chronic pain as they couldn’t do anything because I was pregnant and it got worse during that time. It’s such a scary situation and I thought I am never going to come home. But luckily with the help of good surgeons I got surgeries like Whipple surgery where they removed most of my Pancreas and left little bit so that it supplies insulin to the body and I’m not diabetic yet. I’ve been suffering with the disease for 14 yrs. My husband is an computer’s engineer. We have two kids. He tries to pay the bills we get which insurance doesn’t pay. He had made agreement with the collection people that he is going to pay every month this much for every bill. If for some reason he cannot pay for example, this summer we moved to a different apartment, my son is a freshman in NYU college and I have daughter who is 8 yrs old and has lot of enthusiasm and sometimes we have to take care of emergency situations like my son had appendicitis surgery and ended up in the hospital so we had to pay attention to that than paying the regular bills. Then starts the unending calls to pay the bills and it scares me so much. My condition is so painful but I force myself to do so many things so that I can contribute to the family and at least give a small break for my husband. AS I do small jobs and I don’t get benefits, it’s not lot of money which can pay all thebills. There are so many things that we buy on the counter and for that the insurance doesn’t pay.
    I have a friend who doesn’t have any support and job. She has multiple health problems including facing some kind of Cancers too. Recently she broke a thumb trying to cut the grass and make the place look good as she is trying to sell the place to pay the bills. She went to the doctor and he didn’t do a good job and it cost her $3,000. Then she went to another Orthopedic specialist and he said, it’s too late to fix as all the ligaments and tendons have damaged and he just put the bones of Thumb together by putting a bandage so that it won’t fall apart. But it hurts her so much and she can’t do anything right now. She doesn’t have family support and no friends come to help and I live in Philly, she lives in Tennesse. I always feel bad whenever I hear struggle and feel guiltly for not able to help her. If I was healthy and had a nice job maybe I’d have asked her to come here or bring her here from Tennesse and try to help her out. But I can’t do that. Only thing I can do is because she is so lonely living in a remote area where there are no more people around. We talk about the Health Care system and sometimes it frustrates us and sometimes we hope that maybe the system will change for good.
    Watching Critical Condition I cried so much watching Joe and Karen died who are such nice people who got killed because they couldn’t afford the insurance.
    I just hope more and more people who watched this program will get good awareness of what the ordinary people without insurance go through. The producer and Director did a great job showing the facts, what happens in the real life of the people who don’t earn that much money to afford Health Insurance and when they get sick it’s too much too handle both emotionally and physically. There are good points raised in this program. Even though Joe paid taxes regularly how come the Health Care System couldn’t help them when they needed it?
    It’s a wonderful program which made me cry thinking about my situation because I need to rest and don’t need stress in my life but instead I am working two part time jobs and do tutoring for kids who wants to learn Hindi but all these small jobs even though I work so hard is not enough to pay all the bills. My husband still need to pay from his pocket and that makes me feel so bad. I feel like the money which should be used for the kids I;m eating away whenever I hook up to feeding tube because I can’t eat as I get pain. My kids are worried because I’m overworking and I don’t gain any weight because whatever I get the nutrition through feeding tube all goes away when I run around doing all these small jobs. I try to avoid going to hospitals as the bills kept piling up.
    I wish some miracle happens or whatever new government comes into power try to take care of Health Care issue seriously so that lot of lives can be saved. Good Health Care System tries to give emphasis on prevention and that way lot of serious conditions can be nipped in the early stages and most people can get good treatment no matter what. I don’t want to give up hope and I’m positive with all the people who are working for it, the change will come slowly for the benefit of the sick people.
    Thanks for such a Wonderful program.

  • Leslie Baehre

    FOREIGNID: 15386
    I watched this program last night and did not move the entire time. By the time it was over I was in tears. This was the most moving documentary I have ever watched. What have we as a country come to when the almighty dollar has more meaning than a human life. Some of the statistics shown throughout the program were almost unbelievable. Our government should focus its energies on finding a way to provide affordable healthcare to all citizens with greater emphasis on prevention. If everyone could afford to see a doctor for a physical once a year, some problems could be fixed before they get out of control. To top it all off, the price of prescription medications is outrageous. No wonder some can’t afford to keep themselves healthy as they can not afford the medication to do so. My mom always told me “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” but this is a system that is really broken and it is up to each of us and our government to fix this problem before more people die. I think every politician in Washington D.C. should be forced to watch this program and then see if they still turn a blind eye to this national scandal.