During a recent interview on “60 Minutes,” correspondent Scott Pelley asked Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney whether the government has a responsibility to provide care to the 50 million uninsured. Romney replied:
“Well, we do provide care for people who don’t have insurance…If someone has a heart attack, they don’t sit in their apartment and – and die. We – we pick them up in an ambulance and take them to the hospital and give them care. And different states have different ways of providing for that care.”
Last night in Santa Monica, I saw the excellent documentary The Waiting Room, after which, director Peter Nicks held a Q&A session. Upon seeing the film, Romney’s comments immediately come to mind. Everyone should see this film, especially anyone who thinks, like Romney, that the hospital emergency room is an adequate place for providing health care.
The Waiting Room, which is playing in Santa Monica through Oct. 4 and in the Bay Area Oct. 19-25, follows 24 hours in the lives of staff and patients at Oakland’s Highland Hospital. Most of the people who come to Highland Hospital are uninsured. Some have lost their jobs. Others are just barely getting by. And because they don’t have insurance, conditions that could have been treated under the care of a regular physician, instead become full-blown problems later on.
Fortunately, federal law mandates hospitals treat people in severe emergencies regardless of whether they are insured. But, as the film shows, most uninsured use the emergency room as their only source of primary care. The ER becomes their only option for treating chronic illnesses. What Romney and others who think like he does don’t recognize is that the ER isn’t designed or equipped to effectively manage people’s health care. The ER is designed to treat traumas. Yet emergency rooms all over the country are being flooded every day with people seeking treatment for minor illnesses and chronic diseases. The wait to be seen can take hours. And when trauma patients are wheeled in, those with less severe ailments are immediately bumped down the list, prolonging their agony and frustration. This is no way to do health care. But in the United States, we have put up with this intolerable situation for decades.
Nicks said that his film is deliberately apolitical. He said he wanted to show the human stories behind the health reform debate. I believe he was effective in doing that. The film has very little commentary. The viewer isn’t emotionally manipulated in one direction or another. The stories of the characters are simply presented as they unfold. Just showing how people navigate through the maddening bureaucracy of our broken healthcare system is enough.
After The Waiting Room‘s theatrical run, it will be shown on PBS. I think the film will open a lot of eyes into a world that is largely invisible to those Americans who have always had the privilege of continuous health coverage. But with the loss of a job, any of us could end up in the ER as the provider of last resort. Once the new federal healthcare law fully kicks in in 2014, the number of people inundating emergency rooms will ease somewhat, as more people become insured through the health exchanges. Yet, the ER will then mainly serve undocumented immigrants, who were shut out of federal health reform. And despite reform, some American citizens will still be unable to access insurance, because their income is too high to qualify for Medicaid or subsidies. The only way to completely ease the burden on our emergency rooms is to establish a national healthcare system, so all people in the U.S. can be treated for their illnesses in a controlled and timely manner.