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Something is Rotten at PBS

by RUSSELL MOKHIBER

Last year, former Washington Post reporter T.R. Reid made a great documentary for the PBS show Frontline titled Sick Around the World.

Reid traveled to five countries that deliver health care for all – UK, Japan, Switzerland, Germany, Taiwan – to learn about how they do it.

Reid found that the one thing these five countries had in common – none allowed for-profit health insurance companies to sell basic medical coverage.

Frontline then said to Reid – okay, we want you to go around the United States and make a companion documentary titled Sick Around the America.

So, Reid traveled around America, interviewing patients, doctors, and health insurance executives.

The documentary that resulted – Sick Around America – aired Monday night on PBS.

But even though Reid did the reporting for the film, he was cut out of the film when it aired this week.

And the film didn’t present Reid’s bottom line for health care reform – don’t let health insurance companies profit from selling basic health insurance.

They can sell for-profit insurance for extras – breast enlargements, botox, hair transplants.

But not for the basic health needs of the American people.

Instead, the film that aired Monday pushed the view that Americans be required to purchase health insurance from for-profit companies.

And the film had a deceptive segment that totally got wrong the lesson of Reid’s previous documentary – Sick Around the World.

During that segment, about halfway through Sick Around America, the moderator introduces Karen Ignagni, president of America’s Health Insurance Plans, the lead health insurance lobby in the United States.

Moderator: Other developed countries guarantee coverage for everyone. We asked Karen Ignagni why it can’t work here.

Karen Ignagni: Well, it would work if we did what other countries do, which is have a mandate that everybody participate. And if everybody is in, it’s quite reasonable to ask our industry to do guarantee issue, to get everybody in. So, the answer to your question is we can, and the public here will have to agree to do what the public in other countries have done, which is a consensus that everybody should be in.

Moderator: That’s what other developed countries do. They make insurers cover everyone, and they make all citizens buy insurance. And the poor are subsidized.

But the hard reality, as presented by Reid in Sick Around the World, is quite different than Ignagni and the moderator claim.

Other countries do not require citizens buy health insurance from for-profit health insurance companies – the kind that Karen Ignagni represents.

In some countries like Germany and Japan, citizens are required to buy health insurance, but from non-profit, heavily regulated insurance companies.

And other countries, like the UK and Canada, don’t require citizens to buy insurance. Instead, citizens are covered as a birthright – by a single government payer in Canada, or by a national health system in the UK.

The producers of the Frontline piece had a point of view – they wanted to keep the for-profit health insurance companies in the game.

TR Reid wants them out.

“We spent months shooting that film,” Reid explains. “I was the correspondent. We did our last interview on January 6. The producers went to Boston and made the documentary. About late February I saw it for the first time. And I told them I disagreed with it. They listened to me, but they didn’t want to change it.”

Reid has a book coming out this summer titled The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper and Fairer Health Care (Penguin Press, August 2009.)

“I said to them — mandating for-profit insurance is not the lesson from other countries in the world,” Reid said. “I said I’m not going to be in a film that contradicts my previous film and my book. They said – I had to be in the film because I was under contract. I insisted that I couldn’t be. And we parted ways.”

“Doctors, hospitals, nurses, labs can all be for-profit,” Reid said. “But the payment system has to be non-profit. All the other countries have agreed on that. We are the only one that allows health insurance companies to make a profit. You can’t allow a profit to be made on the basic package of health insurance.”

“I don’t think they deliberately got it wrong, but they got it wrong,” Reid said.

Reid said that he now wants to make other documentaries, but not for Frontline.

“Frontline will never touch me a again – they are done with me,” Reid said.

Reid says that “it’s perfectly reasonable for people to disagree about health policy.”

“We disagreed, and we parted ways,” Reid says.

It might be perfectly reasonable for people to disagree about health policy.

But it’s not perfectly reasonable to mislead the American people on national television in the middle of a health care crises when Congress is shaping legislation that will mean life or death for the for-profit health insurance industry.

RUSSELL MOKHIBER is editor of the Corporate Crime Reporter. He can be reached at: russellmokhiber@gmail.com

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