When TV newscaster Howard Beale stands up in the 1976 film Network and yells, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" it propels him into the role of a proselytizing demagogue -- a half-mad sage who dares to speak the truth about a hypocritical and irrational world. His manic jeremiads are celebrated as cathartic calls to arms. But what happens when you lash out against injustice and not a damn thing changes? What happens when you're as mad as hell and forced to keep on taking it?
Oregon physician Paul Hochfeld began examining the ailments of our country's health care system in 2007 -- well before President Obama's health care reform bill made it the divisive issue du jour. What he ended up with, in the spring of 2008, was a self-produced video called Health, Money and Fear. In the film, doctors and other health care professionals from across the country identify the causes of America's skyrocketing health care costs, which by now are familiar to most of us: duplicitous insurance companies, expensive technology, our litigious culture, the prescription drug industry, the growing number of uninsured and the public's ignorance of real costs, to name a few. Their unanimous prescription: universal health care, aka a single-payer system. The experience of producing the film led Hochfeld and a few colleagues to establish an Oregon chapter of the advocacy group Physicians for a National Health Program.
In July of last year, Hochfeld was contacted by two political operatives, Gary Jelinek and Adam Klugman, who had helped organize the 2004 presidential campaign of Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich. They wanted Hochfeld and his PNHP pals to hit the road in an RV, delivering their message in a 27-city tour across the country culminating in Washington, D.C. They would be called "The Mad as Hell Doctors."
The journey, undertaken last fall, allowed the participating doctors to forge a network of relationships with like-minded people across the country, but it failed to achieve the popularity of Howard Beale's crusade. Amidst the din of Tea Party rage and town hall hysteria, the Mad as Hell Docs were all but ignored by the national media. Worse still, in the halls of government single-payer was quickly deemed politically untenable and abandoned altogether.
A year later -- with a reform bill passed but the root problems still in place -- the angry doctors are soldiering on, embarking on a California-only tour of 22 cities (starting with Arcata this Thursday) despite the fact that prospects for single-payer have rarely looked bleaker. The state legislature has twice passed a single-payer bill (Senator Mark Leno's SB 810, the California Universal Health Care Act) only to have it vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger. This year the senate was set to pass the bill a third time when it was summarily pulled by the Democratic speaker of the Assembly, allegedly for political reasons. (Supporters of gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown, including the California Nurses Association, have said that forcing him to take a public stance on single-payer would be a strategic liability.)
Reached by phone last week, Dr. Hochfeld expressed concerns over the state of American society at large, saying the problems that afflict health care -- namely corporations manipulating public policy for profit -- have infected other aspects of our daily lives, from our "broken political process" to the mainstream media. He didn't sound particularly "mad as hell" -- more like battered and depressed -- but he remains determined. "I think eventually we'll have something that looks like single-payer," he said. "But 'eventually' might be ten or 15 years, and between now and then the whole thing might collapse." Sounding like a reluctant oracle, Hochfeld predicted difficult times ahead. "I think things are going to get really, really bad before they get better."
If Hochfeld sounds like a bit of a bummer, he promises a lighter tone Thursday evening at the Bayside Grange when the traveling physicians are joined for a panel discussion by local doctors Hal Grotke, Ann Lindsay and Ellen Mahoney. (There's also a noon event planned for the HSU quad. See the calendar in this week's issue, on newsstands Wednesday, for details.) What people can expect, he said, is doctors discussing health care issues with uncommon candor, and even humor. "I hope we make them laugh a little bit, because we can't take ourselves too seriously," Hochfeld said. "I hope they're entertained, and I hope they come away from it feeling more of a sense of community with those who feel the way they do."
Preaching to the choir? Perhaps. But Hochfeld added that he's happy to engage those who disagree with him, too. He even sympathizes with the Tea Party movement's primary objection to government-run health care. "You can't blame 'em for being afraid of the government," he said. "But the solution for a lot of them, instead of fixing government, is to make government smaller and more impotent. ... The trouble with that solution is then nobody's going to get in the way of the corporations completely raping us and manipulating the media to hide the fact that that's what's going on."
Like he said: candor.