Hector Cardenes, a warehouse manager in Los Angeles with diabetes, opted to amputate his foot before losing his job and insurance benefits.
Roger Weisberg’s Critical Condition is a powerful, eye-opening look at the health care crisis in America. In an election season when health care reform has become one of the nation’s most hotly debated issues, Critical Condition lays out the human consequences of an increasingly expensive and inaccessible system. using the same cinema verite style he employed with Waging a Living (POV, 2006), Weisberg allows ordinary hard-working Americans to tell their harrowing stories of battling critical illnesses without health insurance.
The four people profiled in Critical Condition live in places as diverse as Los Angeles; Austin, Texas; and Bethlehem, Penn., but they face distressingly similar obstacles to surviving without health insurance. It is through their eyes and words that we are taken through the gaping holes in the health care system, where care is often delayed or denied. Ultimately, the unforgettable subjects of Critical Condition discover that being uninsured can cost them their jobs, health, homes, savings, and even their lives.
Critical Condition dramatizes how health care is rationed based on ability to pay. “It’s your money or your life,” says one of the film’s subjects, who courageously lays bare the uncounted cost in pain and suffering that is borne by millions of uninsured Americans
America is the only major industrial nation without universal health coverage. Forty-seven million Americans live without health insurance.
As the film illustrates, the country spends over $2 trillion a year — over $6,000 per person — on health care, yet is the only major industrial nation without universal coverage. Forty-seven million Americans live without health insurance, and 80 percent of them are from working families who either cannot afford insurance premiums or lose their insurance exactly when they need it most: when they fall ill and can no longer work.
Despite spending 50 percent more on health care than any other country in the world, America ranks 15th in preventable death, 24th in life expectancy, and 28th in infant mortality. The struggles of the four families profiled in Critical Condition put a human face on just what these statistics really mean for ordinary Americans.
The film’s subjects:
Joe Stornaiuolo, a doorman for 15 years, loses his finger, then his job, and ultimately his health insurance. Unable to afford the medication or doctor visits he needs to manage his chronic liver disease, Joe has to be hospitalized four times in one year, running up bills in excess of $60,000. When he finally qualifies for Social Security Disability, he discovers a terrible Catch-22: his income is too great to qualify for Medicaid, and there’s a standard two-year waiting period to qualify for Medicare. Despite the unflinching support and care of his wife, Dale, Joe’s condition deteriorates, and he passes away just before Christmas. With a grandchild she now must raise alone and bills she can never hope to repay, Dale attributes Joe’s premature death to his lack of medical coverage.
Karen Dove loses her insurance because her deteriorating health forces her to quit her job as an apartment manager. When she begins experiencing severe recurrent abdominal pains, the doctors she contacts refuse to treat uninsured patients. A year later, after she finally finds a gynecologic oncologist willing to treat her, she is diagnosed with Stage 3 ovarian cancer, which is almost always fatal. Karen undergoes surgery and chemotherapy, which drives her cancer into remission but sinks her family deep into debt. She and her husband are forced to sell their belongings and move into a less expensive home, and Karen must forego expensive treatment and medication. A year after her operation, Karen’s cancer recurs. Sadly, she passed away in March 2008, after the production of Critical Condition was completed.
Hector Cardenas, a warehouse manager in Los Angeles with diabetes, opted to amputate his infected foot before losing his job and medical benefits. When his insurance coverage lapses, he struggles to repair his broken temporary prosthesis on his own. He cannot walk properly or earn money without a permanent prosthesis, but he cannot afford the permanent prosthesis without a job that offers basic medical benefits. Adding insult to injury, Hector’s old insurance company retroactively denies reimbursement for his original prosthesis, and saddles Hector with a $9,000 bill. He falls five months behind on rent and is forced to move into a single room in a nearby motel. After a year without finding a job, Hector’s perseverance pays off and he is hired as a warehouse manager at a new company. He hopes that he can stay healthy enough to survive the probation period until he qualifies for insurance, but he still worries that the company’s policy will not cover his pre-existing conditions.
Carlos Benitez, an uninsured chef at a French restaurant, has a severe back deformity that has caused him 15 years of unbearable pain and taken seven inches off his height. After learning that the county hospital will not perform surgery, he becomes convinced that the only way to find an affordable cure is to travel to Mexico, where orthopedic specialists recommend he have surgery as soon as possible. Even though the cost in Mexico City is a fraction of what it would be in Los Angeles, he still can’t afford the procedure or the time away from work.
Carlos resigns himself to a life of chronic pain and deformity until he experiences what he calls a miracle. Dr. Patrick Dowling, the Chief of the Department of Family Medicine at UCLA, had seen Carlos a local health fair where the doctor was supervising his medical students as they offered free check-ups to the public. Making a rare exception to the rule, Dr. Dowling is able to arrange for a private orthopedic hospital and a team of surgeons to waive their $300,000 fees for Carlos’s operation. Dr. Dowling is “very pleased that we could help this one individual out,” but laments that “we can’t do endless surgery on uninsured patients; it begs a national solution.”
“Many of my previous documentaries have taken viewers inside the nation’s embattled health care system,” says director Weisberg. “In making Critical Condition, I wanted to build on my previous work in order to contribute to this historically significant moment when the nation considers how to extend health insurance coverage to all Americans. During just the 90-minute running time of this film, an additional 377 Americans will lose medical coverage. I hope Critical Condition will be a call to action as the health care reform debate heats up in 2008.”
Critical Condition is a production of Public Policy Productions Inc. in association with Thirteen/WNET New York and American Documentary | POV
Funding for Critical Condition is provided by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Charles A. Frueauff Foundation, the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation, the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, Nathan Cummings Foundation, the New York Community Trust, the Park Foundation, the Public Welfare Foundation, Public Broadcasting Service, the Silverweed Foundation, Spunk Fund, and the Trull Foundation.