“Elysium” hasn’t been the box office hit Hollywood hoped, and no wonder. Contrary to what the trailers promised, it’s not a sci-fi action film with Matt Damon adapting his Jason Bourne shtick to a near-future dystopia.
Instead, “Elysium” is a movie about Obamacare.
Mr. Damon plays Max, who with billions of other have-nots occupies a depleted, polluted Earth while the wealthy few luxuriate on the orbiting Elysium space habitat. After an industrial accident, Max has just days to live — unless he can finagle a ticket to Elysium, where life-saving health care is available to all. And they don’t even need a doctor. A scanner in every home — it looks like a high-tech tanning bed — detects and heals every ill from cancer to wrinkles.
Max is not the only patient desperate for Elysium’s miracle cures. Rogue space shuttles crammed with “illegals” — many of them parents with terminally ill children in tow — risk death to land on Elysium, where they break into mansions, hoping for a few minutes’ access to those scanners.
The rich get health care. The poor don’t. Mr. Damon and the other good guys are motivated by self-interest but become heroic when their goal shifts to providing universal health care for the folks stranded on Earth.
There’s also lots of shooting and blowing things up. It is a movie, after all. Shooting people and blowing things up aren’t an actual requirement of Obamacare, of course. Perhaps if they were, Republicans would be on board.
The gunplay and pyrotechnics aren’t enough to disguise Elysium’s overriding Obamacare theme. It’s an odd, and not particularly entertaining, combination of whomp and wonk. But supporters of Obamacare can take heart that universal health care has become such a central topic that Hollywood tried to weave it into a summer blockbuster. Obamacare fans are convinced that once the public gets a good look at the program, it will be so popular that it never can be taken away.
Or maybe I’ve just got Obamacare on the brain. I recently served on a jury in a civil trial involving multiple defendants and plaintiffs. During weeklong testimony, I couldn’t help but wonder how Obamacare might have affected the case.
Because, like “Elysium,” the civil case really was about health care. The plaintiffs, injured in a couple of car crashes, were seeking more than $600,000, most of it for past and future medical care, primarily surgery.
When the plaintiffs were making their case, they paraded doctor after doctor explaining why one crash victim needed extensive neck surgery and would need even more neck surgery, plus delicate back surgery. Another crash victim, the plaintiffs’ doctors contended, needed two knee surgeries and might need more later.
The defendants’ lawyers paraded doctor after doctor explaining why neither victim needed the surgery they had undergone and why they wouldn’t need more surgery, unless it was to undo the mess wrought by the initial, bogus surgery.
As is typical in these cases, the doctors who performed the surgeries — and the hospitals and surgery centers where the operations were performed — had agreed not to seek payment until the case had been litigated.
The case might have gone away — or at least could have been significantly expedited — if the injured victims could have been assured that they would get appropriate, timely health care. Obamacare isn’t that, but it is a step in that direction. But because the victims had to get previous care “on spec” and couldn’t be assured of access to future care if needed, teams of lawyers toiled for years — and spent tens of thousands on “expert” testimony from friendly doctors — in an attempt to persuade six jurors to award (or deny) the plaintiffs a small fortune for health care.
What if, instead of lawyers and doctors who testify for profit, we just spent the money on health care?
We jurors weren’t sure that the victims had needed surgery. But we were convinced that they genuinely thought they needed it. They had listened to their doctors’ advice. We awarded the plaintiffs enough to pay medical bills already incurred but not much for pain and suffering or for future medical care.
I’d finished jury duty by the time I saw “Elysium,” but the movie made me think again about the uncertainty over what health care is necessary. In “Elysium,” the machine — which didn’t need to make a buck by ordering an operation or balance a limited budget by denying care — unfailingly diagnosed the patient and did what was necessary. In real life, patients (and juries) have to weigh often-conflicting advice from doctors and insurance companies.
Obamacare, with its phased-in emphasis on “outcomes,” indirectly addresses that major flaw in health care. Of course, any concerted attempt to decree beforehand which care is or isn’t appropriate for the patient only would stir controversy. Adding the element of rationing is problematic in real life but might make the sequel more interesting: “Elysium II: Rise of the Death Panels.”