"John Q" and Single Payer Healthcare
“John Q,” starring Denzel Washington, is an indictment of U.S. health care and a challenge to progressives to become more militant in demanding single-payer health care for all.

The New York Times panned the movie, calling it too obvious, too message-driven (!). True, but for a good cause, unlike the obvious drivel being produced to promote war and killing. If fact, “John Q” is the first movie to dispute the false patriotism myopia “Gee, isn’t this the most wonderful country in the world” since Sept. 11. It’s not a wonderful country at all when millions go without any health care coverage, and millions more, like John Q have almost no coverage with their HMO plans.

The first half of the movie sets the stage for the second half. Indeed, Washington could be playing John Q Public. He’s such an average and decent guy in the face of economic hardship not of his own making. He’s a faithful husband and a devoted father. His best friends are white. He’s been on the job as a factory worker for the past 15 years and has seen most of the work go to Mexico (unfortunately there’s no explicit message about NAFTA) and he’s been reduced to part-time work, and -unknown to him - his health plan has been converted to a lousy HMO. There’s no mention of a union, so we can assume he’s part of the majority of workers who don’t have one.

His son collapses at a Little League game, no less. When John Q finds out that he must pay for a heart transplant operation or his boy will die, all hell breaks loose. The ensuing drama in the emergency room gives plenty of time to explore true-to-life characterizations of uncaring administrators, surgeons who have forgotten the Hippocratic Oath, and the day-to-day struggles of people at the bottom of the economic pyramid in this wonderful country.

Excellent acting by Washington, Daniel Smith, Kimberley Elise, Robert Duvall, Anne Heche, James Woods and others overcomes what could otherwise be a simple morality play. This movie should touch a chord with anyone who’s been up against the profit-driven health care bureaucracy, has seen a friend die because an HMO saved money by not providing adequate tests, or has to choose between paying big monthly premiums for health care for their family or paying the rent.

John Q should also challenge political activists, health care unions, caring doctors and nurses to redouble their efforts to win universal health care coverage. I’m not suggesting the one-patient-at-a-time approach of John Q, but certainly a level of militancy equal to the gravity of the problem. More people are dying from lack of health care than from terrorism. How about declaring war on health care-for-profit?

In California, a single-payer initiative went down to defeat in 1994 - a bad year all the way around for progressives and progressive causes. Since then nothing. We need to follow Ralph Nader’s advice in 1995: “Keep putting it on the ballot until it wins.” Next time we get it on the ballot, we can show “John Q” at house meetings.