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In US, Hired Without Health Benefits
by Seth Sandronsky
July 12, 2004

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I am no TV critic. Truth is, yours truly can barely stomach a few hours of the BBC and U.S. network news a week. Still, consider my idea for a new reality TV show: “Hired Without Health Benefits.”

What could be more American? About every third American under the age of 65 lacked health insurance for a month or more during the past two years, according to a study by Washington-based Families USA. Around 85 percent of these 82 million Americans work for a living.

They are your family, friends, co-workers, and perhaps even you. Filmmaker Michael Moore could host the new show. He is a progressive American who is “bankable” to investors.

They look to one thing: return on their investment. The director of “Farenheit 9/11” can bring that bacon home to them. That hurdle cleared, the show would air this fall to dovetail with Election Day.

I can see the headlines now. “U.S. economy on the rebound as new reality TV show airs.” Independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader is a guest on the first episode.

The anti-war candidate sets the stage for interviews with and profiles of ordinary Americans working at ordinary jobs without health benefits. There are hordes of them in the land of democracy and freedom. Let right-wing talk radio respond to that if its hosts can find the time from bashing Democrats.

Picture this expose. “Do you have health insurance?” the hospital admitting clerk asks a 40-ish security guard doubled over in pain from kidney stones.

“No” is the reply.

The camera pans the waiting room. Young and old are there, pink and white collar workers. Some of them are in obvious anguish.

A few hours of medical treatment later and the guard feels better. The stones have passed. However, the patient is unaware of being charged many times more for the services rendered by the hospital than it bills patients with health insurance.

A week later the security guard gets a bill for medical treatment that is over $8,000. That amount represents nearly half the worker’s annual income. Some viewers who earn similar wages without health benefits may see themselves in the worried face of the guard.

A graphic appears on the TV screen. A narrator speaks: “Wal-Mart provides company-paid health benefits to 47 percent of its 1.2 million employees in the U.S. The company is the nation’s biggest employer.”

After a break, the camera focuses on a doorbell being rung. “Who is that?” a child says from the other side of the door. “Be quiet and come over here with me,” responds the security guard.

The TV camera closes in on the adult and kid. They sit silently on a couch as the bill collector knocks loudly, “rat-a-tat-tat.” An envelope slides under the door.

Viewers’ moral outrage rises as the guard reads the mail. The flesh and blood of the health care crisis in America is becoming more real on the TV screen. Such is reality in this country where labor unions are weak and the people’s welfare state is weakening.

One result is lousy jobs such as the security guard’s that pay around $9.00 per hour. The guard earns about $18,000 a year. That is roughly the federal poverty level for a family of four.

Princeton economist Paul Krugman recently noted the trend of cheap labor during the Bush jobs boomlet. In his NY Times column of July 6, Krugman wrote “government policies could do a lot about the failure of new jobs to come with health benefits, a huge source of anxiety for many American families.” He is not a radical, but a reformer.

Thus Krugman backs a health care policy proposal by John Kerry. On one hand, it would shift some of the money from Bush’s tax cuts for the rich to the working majority to pay for their health care. On the other hand, the delivery of health care would remain under the control of HMOs and insurance companies.

As guests on “Hired Without Health Care,” Krugman and Nader could debate corporate control of health care in America. Nader teaches viewers how and why tax dollars fund health care at a lower cost for universal coverage in Canada, Mexico and Europe than the private companies do for some Americans.

Most viewers probably do not know this.

Blame American journalism. It has kept them ignorant about their health care versus health care in other nations. Moore’s new show could educate viewers on that subject.

Reality TV gets real!

Seth Sandronsky is a member of Peace Action and co-editor with Because People Matter, Sacramento’s progressive paper. He can be reached at:

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