If you don't panic over the bill when you visit the doctor because you know your employer will pick up part of the tab, you're one of the lucky ones. "Dying for Health Care" (tonight at 8 on Channel 26) takes a look at the places where such seeds of prosperity are not sown.
While the cadence of this one-hour, WETA-produced documentary is a bit choppy, it does a credible job of showing in real-life terms what happens to people in the District who do not have health insurance.
The piece is reported and narrated by Washington Post writer Juan Williams, and illustrated with good, but not gory, hospital footage. Williams points out that contrary to what many believe, lack of insurance is not solely a problem of the unemployed, but affects a growing number of people who work in part- and full-time positions that do not provide health benefits.
Tonight's program was conceived by WETA producer Jeff Bieber, who said he was appalled to learn that the District ranks second only to Houston in the number of residents who do not have health insurance -- one in six District residents go without.
The show begins with the saga of Linda Willis, who had been trying to find a doctor or hospital that could alleviate her severe abdominal pains. Although Willis lost her job, she did not qualify for the city's Medicaid program, but did manage to get into the District's medical charities program, accepted by only a few physicians and hospitals in town.
The process of applying for government assistance was a degrading one, she says tearfully. "It makes you feel like you are worthless to society."
Willis' story and other tales of woe are woven in between comments from local hospital officials.
After the first few minutes, the weaving begins to make you dizzy. Although all the threads are pretty well pulled together at the end, you may lose track of people along the way. There are moments when it seems the producer was trying to play two pianos at once.
Inevitably the discussion turns to the much-maligned D.C. General Hospital, where most of the city's nonpaying patients are forced to go. As in most other major cities, the public hospital is the dumping place for those with no options and the emergency room substitutes for the private doctor.
It was in D.C. General's not-so-friendly emergency room that Williams met and interviewed Hattie Bittle, a pregnant woman waiting for an examination. It is her story that leads the viewer to a jolting finale and the very appropriate "outro," "How Long, How Much More Longer," sung by Sweet Honey in the Rock.