Daily Show And Remote Area Medical Reveal Hardships Right Here At Home

If you want to see a media pundit rendered utterly speechless, reduced to babbling as he tries to justify his claim that Obamacare is leading the United States to third world status, you must watch Daily Show “correspondent” Aasif Mandvi’s Thursday night takedown of FOX Business commentator Todd Wilemon.

Unless you’ve been in a coma for the past five years, you undoubtedly have heard a steady steam of politicians who are not fans of President Obama or his health care law insist that the U.S. has the best health care system in the world, so why mess with it?

Mandvi’s segment began with clips of several members of Congress warning that the Affordable Care Act most certainly will bring an end to our global health care bragging rights.

—Read Wendall Potter’s original work for the Center for Public Integrity here

It’s hard to imagine why Wilemon, who by day toils on Wall Street as managing director of the New York Stock Exchange, would agree to sit down with Mandvi with the cameras rolling. Maybe he thought that being on Fox for a dozen years was sufficient preparation for any kind of interview, even a fake one.

To prove the lie that the “best in the world” claim really is, Mandvi traveled to Knoxville, Tennessee, home of the University of Tennessee, my alma mater, and the headquarters of Remote Area Medical, an organization founded 30 years ago to fly American doctors to some of the poorest places on the planet.

Mandvi is shown in a helicopter with RAM founder Stan Brock early in the segment as they presumably are about to touch down in some distant, poverty-stricken village. It turns out, of course, that they’ve just been flying around East Tennessee.

When told by a RAM volunteer after they land that, “This is Knoxville, Tennessee, this is America,” Mandvi asks, in mock astonishment: “If this is America, what the hell is [RAM’s] Stan Brock doing here?”

The reason they’ve never left American soil, of course, is because millions of us have not been able to get the care we need because we can’t afford it. Millions of us can’t even afford health insurance. So Remote Area Medical’s help is needed not just in the Third World, but right here in the old USA as well. 

Back in New York, Mandvi tells Wilemon that he has just returned from seeing hundreds of people waiting in long lines for hours to get care, to which Wilemon, assuming Mandvi has probably returned from Africa or some place like it, responds, “This is how bad it can get here.”

When Mandvi tells him that, “The place I’m talking about is Knoxville, Tennessee,” Wilemon has one of those moments you never, ever want to have on TV. He’s at a complete loss. Eventually he comes out with, “Yes, people do fall through the cracks.”

“Some pretty [expletive] big cracks,” Mandvi suggests.

Wilemon recovers enough to get out a couple of other familiar talking points.

“They’ve made that choice to go bare,” he said. That’s insurance industry talk for deciding not to buy coverage.

“People want a free lunch,” Wilemon goes on to say.

When Mandvi suggests that maybe many Americans are just too poor to get the care they need, Wilemon channels Marie Antoinette.

“I’ll be honest,” he says. “If you’re poor, stop being poor.”

Get a GED. And then get a job, he adds. This is what passes for probing commentary.

The segment was hilarious from start to finish. But as only satirical comedy can do, it laid bare, to use Wilemon’s word, the cognitive dissonance that afflicts so many of our politicians and pundits.

I used to hang out in Wilemon’s world, so I understand where he was coming from. When I was an insurance company executive, I spent quite a bit of time on Wall Street, including on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. I made it a point of steering clear of places where Remote Area Medical now stages the vast majority of its medical “expeditions.” Toward the end of the Daily Show’s “report,” Brock told Mandvi that 90 percent of RAM’s work is actually now in the United States.

You can say, and even believe, that the U.S. has the best health care system in the world if, as I did for many years, you associate only with other folks who share the same world view as you do and if you watch, read and listen to the media that reinforce your preconceived notions. 

Unlike Wilemon, though, I decided out of curiosity to go to a RAM expedition near where I grew up a few years ago. It was an experience that woke me up. If every politician and pundit would take the time to see what Brock and the hundreds of volunteers do in this country to help people who fall through the cracks, they could no longer believe the lies they tell themselves. Or the lies they tell the rest of us.

Former CIGNA executive-turned-whistleblower Wendell Potter is writing about the health care industry and the ongoing battle for health reform for the Center for Public Integrity.