‘Sick Around America’ disappoints

By Mark Almberg for PNHP

“Sick Around America,” a Frontline documentary about the dysfunctional U.S. health care system, aired March 31 on PBS.

Billed as a sequel to the widely hailed “Sick Around the World,” a 2008 Frontline production featuring veteran Washington Post correspondent T.R. Reid, the new documentary was eagerly awaited by U.S. supporters of fundamental health reform.

In the first film, Reid gave an accurate portrayal of several single-payer health systems overseas. Many reform advocates hoped this new documentary would discuss single payer as an option for the United States, too, particularly given its popularity among the U.S. public.

Alas, that was not to be the case. Nor, incidentally, was Reid’s name to be found anywhere in the credits.

Instead, filmmaker Jon Palfreman, who also directed the first documentary, concentrates on telling dramatic patient stories that illustrate the utter failure of the present private-insurance-based system. But he offers little in the way of what to do about it.

To the extent that any reform proposal is cited as a possible pathway for change, it is the flawed, mandates-based Massachusetts model. While some of the serious problems of that faltering model are pointed out, viewers are nonetheless left with the impression that mandates may be the way to go. That’s certainly the point made by Karen Ignagni, president of America’s Health Insurance Plans, who makes multiple appearances in the film.

Frontline publishes a blog of viewer comments on its documentaries, and a number of PNHP members and other single-payer supporters were quick to express their disappointment. In fact, single-payer supporters from all over the country were heavily represented in the blog discussion during the first 12 hours after the film’s release. Below is a small sampling of their comments. You can join the discussion at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/sickaroundamerica/talk/


  1. James Kraus on April 2, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    Although I too was disappointed with Sick Around America and I am in agreement with most everything Mark Almberg wrote in this posting, it is extremely important for single payer activists to recognize where the film — via the telling individual stories — seemed to get it right.

    In my view, the message that health care security needs to be disconnected from employment came through very strongly. People generally are extremely unhappy about how they are forced into various types of often low-wage, or otherwise disagreeable, employment in order to secure even modest health care coverage.

    The real question, though, for activists is a strategic one. I would recommend that we do whatever possible to encourage open discussion of the Frontline documentaries by way of encouraging the telling of individual health system stories, and then with increasing emphasis, draw the link to the comprehensive failure of the current system along with a persistent call-to-action — call your senator, write emails to friends or start a blog in support of a single payer system.