Filmmakers turn cameras on America’s ailing healthcare system

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Healthcare reform is the focus of three new documentaries that explore the explosive issue through different lenses.

“Doctored,” which opened Thursday, focuses on the benefits of seeing chiropractors, while examining a wide range of medical, political and insurance topics.

“The Waiting Room,” which arrived Friday, provides an unflinching look at the uninsured trying to get healthcare at a big city hospital.


“Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare,” opening Oct. 5 in theaters and on video on demand, looks at ways to help cure the ailing system, including greater use of alternative healing.

Michael Lumpkin, executive director of the International Documentary Assn., said these kind of topical documentaries can have an effect on how people think and vote. They can also influence the legislative process.

“I think a lot of people in the government are looking to documentary films to make sure they are on top of the issues,” said Lumpkin.

Healthcare is one of most contentious issues swirling around this presidential election. Last Friday at the AARP convention in New Orleans, vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan elicited boos when he pledged to repeal President Obama’s healthcare law, as well as reiterating his plan to make over Medicare. The president received a warmer response when he told the crowd that his healthcare reform plan would help bolster Medicare’s finances.

Though the filmmakers were inspired by the decades’ long healthcare debate, they all note that the timing of their documentaries’ release was coincidence.

“A lot of it is pegged to the cycle of your post-production and festivals,” said Peter Nicks, director of “The Waiting Room.” “I have been working on this since 2007.”


Matthew Heineman, who directed “Escape Fire” with Susan Froemke, said that the pair started working on the project three years go and that they had no idea then that it would be released a month before the election. But he’s thrilled with the timing.

“I think for us it was luck and circumstance,” he said.

Bobby Sheehan, who directed “Doctored,” believes a documentary subgenre has developed on healthcare films. “I hope there is going to be more of them,” he said. “There are so many problems.”

“Doctored” begins as a documentary examining the chiropractic profession, whose members have long been ostracized by the American Medical Assn., and features interviews with athletes, including former NBA star John Stockton, who had worked with chiropractors for years, but then expands to look at wider issues.

Sheehan admitted that he strayed off his main focus because “my head was so full of new information about how many things are just so wrong.”

“While making this film, we dared go into one too many topics,” he added.

“Waiting Room” is a character-driven documentary that follows several patients, including a young girl with strep throat and an older man with painful bone spurs, over a 24-hour period in the emergency waiting room at Oakland’s Highland Hospital. The primary-care facility, which is going through hard economic times, generally sees 250 patients over a 24-hour period, the majority of whom are not insured.

Nicks’ wife is a speech pathologist at the hospital. “She treats a lot of gunshot victims and stroke victims,” he said.


Because the majority of these patients don’t have a primary-care physician, “you see a lot of strokes, because people haven’t been taking care of themselves.”

“Health conditions morph into more serious things,” he added. “I thought this would be a great story that was local and also universal.”

Nicks also saw an opportunity to “make a film that would allow audiences into the healthcare issue in a more human way as opposed to us as filmmakers walking them through the problems.”

“We wanted to tell a story that would really be front and center about the humanity I saw in the waiting room and put politics aside,” he added.

“Escape Fire” director Heineman doesn’t put politics aside. He said the current healthcare industry puts “band-aid fixes on problems.”

“We have a disease care system, not a healthcare system,” he said. “I think one of the most sort of revelatory things for me was to see that more isn’t better. We have a fascination with bigger, better, more and faster in America. But when it comes to healthcare, it is not really true.”