‘John Q’ Pains Health-Care Industry

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The film’s premise is flawed, officials say, adding that its violence could encourage copycat crimes.

The Orange County Register

The movie ”John Q,” Hollywood’s latest take on the outrages of the U.S. health-care system, is raising the hackles of health plans and hospitals, who say it is factually flawed and could even be dangerous.

But consumer advocates say the movie, which opened Friday, taps into a deep wellspring of public anger, accurately portraying the broader problems in health care — even if some of the details are off the mark.

In the film, Denzel Washington plays a father who takes over an emergency room at gunpoint in a desperate, last-ditch gamble to get a heart transplant for his dying son. His insurance doesn’t cover the transplant, and an officious hospital administrator, played by Anne Heche, won’t put his son on the transplant list because he’s not covered financially.

For starters, the scenario seems unlikely because even the cheapest policy — one covering only catastrophic medical events — would probably cover an essential, lifesaving procedure like a heart transplant, though perhaps with a high deductible.

”We’re always concerned about misperceptions when they’re driven by the Hollywood machine,” said Michael Chee, spokesman for Blue Cross of California. ”This is, after all, a Hollywood movie. It’s designed to be hyped, and there’s always an issue of fact vs. fiction.”

Blue Cross sells no policies that would not cover a heart transplant, he said.

Chee said the scenario would be more realistic if Washington’s character had no insurance at all. In an impressionistic way, that may be what the movie is getting at — a system in which more than 40 million people are uninsured and millions more worry they might lose their coverage as companies react to a sour economy by cutting jobs.

Even those who have insurance are seeing their benefits reduced and are paying more out of their own pockets as health-care costs rise at a quicker pace. Senior citizens in Medicare HMOs, for example, have seen their prescription-drug benefits slashed this year, and many are facing unmanageable insurance co-payments for hospital care, chemotherapy and diabetes drugs.

”The trend we have now, even for people with health insurance, is to reduce benefits,” said Earl Lui, a health-care analyst with Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports magazine. ”So I think that (the movie) is realistic.”

Jamie Court, executive director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, said the movie is a ”powerful metaphor” that ”clearly shows how desperate and helpless John Q. Public can feel.”

He added: ”It’s not that abstract, because I have had conversations with experts in the health field who have said that the public is only going to start paying attention to the health-care crisis when somebody takes out a machine gun in an ER and starts shooting.”

That nightmare possibility has some hospitals deeply concerned.

”This soon after the unimaginable (events of Sept. 11), something that encourages the idea that the only way to get what you want is to pull out a gun and threaten people, or threaten yourself, is not the solution to anything — much less to anything in health care,” said Beverly Hayon, spokeswoman for Kaiser Permanente.

Jan Emerson, spokeswoman for the California Healthcare Association, the state’s hospital lobby, said publicity surrounding ”John Q” has raised fears of a copycat attack by some disgruntled patient. Many hospitals have begun reviewing their security procedures since the movie came into the limelight, she said.

Emerson and Hayon both criticized the movie for saying that money is the primary factor determining who gets a transplant and who doesn’t.

”The real issue is that there aren’t enough organs,” Hayon said. ”We’ve got to get the American public to consider this and to let our organs be used in the event of our deaths.”

Hayon expressed concern about the potential of ”John Q” to create misperceptions about the way the health-care system really works. ”There is an emotional content, with a very respected and beloved actor, and I think the question is, ‘Will this resonate with the American public?’ We certainly hope not.”

Contact Wolfson at (714) 796-6977 or [email protected]

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