The critics and the news media panned it. Variety went so far as to say, “A rare case of blatant political propaganda in a major Hollywood picture, John Q. is a shamelessly manipulative commercial on behalf of national health insurance.” True, the film graphically demonstrates how bad the health insurance situation is in this country and how urgently we need a solution — which is why it’s no surprise that John Q. wasn’t made in Hollywood after all.

Is health care for everyone really possible in the U.S.? The day after viewing this remarkable film, the New York Chapter of Physicians for a National Health Program and the Metro New York Health Care for All Campaign decided to go down to a Manhattan theater that was showing John Q and demonstrate that we think health care for all is possible here. About 30 of us stationed ourselves along the block in front of the theater and handed out leaflets echoing the need for national health care. There were doctors and nurses wearing their white coats, several trade unionists, and numerous health care advocates in the group. We were joined by Richard Gottfried, New York State Assembly Health Committee Chair, who helped in handing out our leaflets that stated, “Millions in N.Y. are ‘Health Care Hostages.’”

Most people took leaflets with a smile of agreement; a few others, mostly very young, did not, but that was okay too. Some members of the press appeared, interviewed Assemblyman Gottfried and others, filmed and took pictures as we gave our opinions; later that day we received very good TV and radio coverage. Many people who were passing stopped to listen to what we had to say and obviously approved, but they also asked questions. Some told us their tales. It was quite a day.

This exquisitely acted film confirms the conclusion of the World Health Organization, which ranked the United States 37th among health care systems of the industrialized nations.

When John Q’s young son collapses on a baseball field, this working man not only learns that his HMO won’t pay for the heart transplant the boy so desperately needs to save his life, but that the physicians who had been doing his yearly check ups had never bothered to check the condition of his heart. HMOs often give bonuses to reward doctors who give less care and order fewer tests, as many hospital workers can attest. John Q. (Denzel Washington) takes some melodramatic measures such as taking the emergency room hostage in order to save his son, but the public is rooting for him, as was everyone in the audience.

Of course the real message of the film was not that we should all go take over emergency rooms at gunpoint, but that we need to get together to bring universal health care to the United States. Denzel is not the only John Q. in America. There are over forty million people nationwide who don’t have any health insurance, not counting immigrants. A new report by Families USA says, “New unemployment numbers indicate over 529,000 laid off workers lost health coverage from September 11th through November 2001. The total number of people who lost jobs since the recession began last March has climbed to over 911,000.” Those of us with insurance, like John Q., have to fight with our health plans to get the care we need. We are seeing our premiums and out-of-pocket costs skyrocket while our benefits are cut back. Traditional Medicare still doesn’t cover prescription drugs. Meanwhile, thousands of seniors nationwide who were driven into Medicare HMOs in order to get the drug coverage they needed have since been thrown out because their care is often too costly to sustain the profits that HMOs demand. The HMO prescription benefits formerly offered seniors have frequently been eliminated as pharmaceutical companies raise prices on life-sustaining drugs. Once-affordable Medigap policies’ costs have gone through the roof for seniors and the disabled who live on fixed incomes.

While some of our legislators have been pushing for incremental health care reform, or as Dr. Fitzhugh Mullan has called it, “Tin-Cup Medicine,” what’s needed is voices raised from all the John Qs and Jane Qs who believe in comprehensive, quality, affordable health care. Leafletting John Q. and letting the press know about it is a very good way to raise our voices and have them heard. Despite all the critical reviews, the film was #1 the weekend it opened and is still doing very well in testimony to how its message resonates. Anyone who would like more information on our action in New York should contact Physicians for a National Health Program-NY at (212) 666-4001 or, or visit the New York PNHP website at where pictures and leaflets from the event are displayed.

During the film someone asks, “How’s this going to end John?” In the real world, it’s up to all of us, together, to achieve health care for all.


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