An Arm and a Leg
To get health insurance, this couple made a movie
Last fall, actor-writers Ellen Haun and Dru Johnston were hustling to get their health insurance sorted out for 2023. To qualify for insurance through the actor’s union, SAG-AFTRA, Ellen would have to book a little more work — doable, but not a sure bet.
So they came up with a plan: crowdfund a bunch of money to make a short film, starring Ellen … called “Ellen Needs Insurance,” of course.
It worked! And the movie, a 13-minute comedy, is terrific.
Ellen and Dru sat down with us to go over how they made the whole thing happen, and how this year’s Hollywood strikes changed their perspectives.
Here’s a transcript of this episode.
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5. “Your Money or Your Life”: Dr. Luke Messac’s book on the history of medical debt25:48In 2019, Dr. Luke Messac was a medical resident who found himself spending his day off in a courthouse archive. He’d heard about hospitals suing their own patients over unpaid medical bills. He wanted to know if the hospitals he worked in were doing the same. They were. Trained as a historian, Messac then set out to trace the history of this phenomenon, and the story of medical debt in the U.S.His new book, Your Money or Your Life is the result of that research. Luke Messac sat down with us for a chat about how he got interested in medical debt, how medical debt became the massive problem it is today, and what he thinks people who work in health care can do to start to fix it.ALSO: Hey, it’s the BEST time to support this show with a donation. Thanks to NewsMatch, any gift you make, up to $1,000, will be doubled. It’s a great deal, and it will set us up to kick maximum butt in 2024. Here’s the link, go for it!
4. Paging Dr. Glaucomflecken: Presenting “The Nocturnists - Conversations: Will & Kristin Flanary (The Glaucomfleckens)”01:04:12First: an update on our recent two-parter with the writer John Green, about the global, decades-long fight to make an important tuberculosis drug more widely available. Just two days after we posted part 2, the activists waging that battle scored a major victory. John Green was kvelling on YouTube, of course. We’ll get you up to speed. And for the meat of this episode, we’ve got a guest a lot of you have been asking for: Physician/comedian Will Flanary, AKA Dr. Glaucomflecken. His punchy videos satirizing the absurdities and cruel complexities of the American health care system have been a fan favorite for years among An Arm and a Leg listeners (and us too).We’re sharing a delightful and moving conversation with Dr. G and his wife, educator Kristin Flanary (AKA @LadyGlaucomflecken online), from our pals at The Nocturnists, a podcast about the experiences of health care workers. As the Glaucomfleckens tell Nocturnists host Dr. Emily Silverman, the inspiration behind Flanary’s most biting videos. came from the couple’s experience dealing with health insurance after he suffered a near-fatal heart attack.Check out the Nocturnists here or wherever you get your podcasts, and Dr. Glaucomflecken’s videos on TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube. Send your stories and questions for An Arm and a Leg, or call 724 ARM-N-LEG.And of course we'd love for you to support this show.
3. John Green vs. Johnson & Johnson (part 2)26:29This is part two of our globe-spanning story about drugs, patents, and YouTube megastar John Green. Quick recap: In our last episode, we learned how writer and YouTube star John Green kicked up a fight with Johnson & Johnson over a medicine called bedaquiline. And appeared to score a victory.Here, we dig into the backstory: How everything John Green and his fans won was built on activism going back 20 years, and spanning multiple continents. All of it illustrates how pharma companies work the patent system to extend their legal monopolies on medicine way beyond the standard 20 years, and how that leads to high drug prices here and abroad. And what we can maybe do about it. This episode starts in 2004, when India began the process of changing its patent laws to align with global trade rules. Activists there managed to carve out exceptions to the law to prevent some of the worst patent abuses. Fast forward to this year, when those legal safeguards become key to unlocking new doors in the fight against TB. Meanwhile, the proponents of those Indian safeguards are here in the U.S., pushing for drug patent reform here. Which not only could help Americans, but also influence global standards. Here's a transcript of this episode. Send your stories and questions. Or call 724 ARM-N-LEG.And of course we'd love for you to support this show.
2. John Green vs. Johnson & Johnson (part 1)22:48This episode is special. When we heard that widely-beloved writer John Green was rallying his online community around a fight over drug prices — and apparently making a difference — we were pumped. And this story took us in so many different directions: Literally around the world, and then straight back home.The drug in question is bedaquiline, made by Johnson & Johnson. It treats drug-resistant tuberculosis, and its price has been a huge obstacle to getting it to places it’s needed most — primarily places far away from the U.S.But the reason this TB drug costs so much overseas is also one of the main reasons that important drugs here are so expensive — drugs like insulin, Humira and… well, just about everything: Legalistic patent games that pharma companies have mastered. So, in addition to John Green — and yes, we talked with John Green — we also talked with one of the world’s leading experts on drug-patent games, Tahir Amin.Also, John Green is a great storyteller. So hearing him tell the story of how he became obsessed with tuberculosis is bittersweet.And in order to make sense of any of this, we had to dig into the story of how John Green and his brother Hank became (and remain) YouTube superstars. For more than 16 years, they’ve been building a community of “nerdfighters” — nerds fighting to make the world a better place. It’s a profoundly sweet and fun story, and everything we’re trying to do here owes them a debt. Oh, finally: This is, as you’re probably guessing by now, an epic story. It’s gonna take two full episodes of An Arm and a Leg to tell it all. So, we hope you enjoy part one. There’s more coming in a few weeks.
Something's coming, something good.03:38Hey there— our next story is gonna take a little more time to cook, but it is going to be SO worth it. It involves John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars — and yes, we've got an interview with him — and a global fight against multi-drug resistant tuberculosis.... which turns out to be directly related to fights over the prices of drugs like insulin and humira in this country.Meanwhile, let me recommend a story from ProPublica that's related to a story we did here a few months ago.You might remember our recent episode about United HealthGroup, and how it's become a behemoth in recent years. That story started with a complaint from a doc in New York.... who had a lot more tips than I could run down — or fit in one episode — and they weren't all just about United. ProPublica's Cezary Podkul took the time to verify a big one: About zillions of dollars in fees that docs are paying — dollars that ultimately come out of our pockets — just to get paid.Oh, and: If you aren't getting our First Aid Kit newsletter, this is a great time to sign up. We've started a series about how to fight with insurance that, unfortunately, a lot of us are gonna need at some point. We'll be back in a few weeks, with John Green, TB, and the fight over drug prices. Send your stories and questions. Or call 724 ARM-N-LEG.And of course we’d love for you to support this show.
1. How to Get a Surprise Bill on Your Way to the Hospital19:44For a year and a half now, the No Surprises Act has protected patients from some of the most outrageous out-of-network medical bills. But Congress left something pretty crucial out of the law — bills from ground ambulances. We look at just how wild ambulance bills can be, with a story about three siblings who took identical ambulance rides — from the same car wreck to the same hospital — and got completely different bills. (Thanks to Bram Sable-Smith who reported the story for the Bill of the Month, a series from NPR and KFF Health News.). And we find out how ambulance bills ended up being so random — a story that takes us back to the 1970’s. Plus, what you can do if you get hit with an out-of-network ambulance bill:See if you can negotiate a better dealSee if you might qualify for financial assistance. (Here’s some detailed guidance from Jared Walker of Dollar For.)See if you’re protected under state law. At least ten states have passed laws protecting some patients from surprise ambulance bills. Check here to see if yours is one of them. Want to share your thoughts on how Congress should deal with out-of-network ambulance bills? A federal advisory committee wants to hear them. You can email them here.Here’s a transcript of this episode. Send your stories and questions. Or call 724 ARM-N-LEG.And of course we’d love for you to support this show.
9. Wait, what’s a PBM (and how do they work)?21:31If you’ve been told your insurance won’t cover your meds — or that you’re gonna have to pay an arm and a leg for them — you’ve met a PBM: a pharmacy benefits manager. And: Experts say they play a big role in jacking up drug prices overall. But how, exactly? We took a deep dive.This episode first went out in 2019. We’re bringing it back because PBMs are in the news these days: Congress is targeting them, in an effort to to be seen doing something about prescription drug prices. And PBMs’ sometimes-rival, the powerful pharmaceutical industry lobby, is flooding the airwaves with ads attacking them. There’s been a little news since 2019: Although Congress is still catching up, all 50 states have passed some laws pertaining to how PBMs work. We’ve got an update on that. Here’s a transcript of this episode. Send your stories and questions. Or call 724 ARM-N-LEG.And of course we’d love for you to support this show.Correction: A previous version of this episode misidentified the parent company of Express Scripts.
8. Credit Card, Please21:49A listener’s doctor wanted her credit card info up front — before her appointment. She wondered: Do I need to give it to them? We did too. After all, who wants the risk of being overcharged — and then having to fight for money back?Experts gave us their best advice, including a couple of tricks to try, and a legal protection you may be able to rely on. Meanwhile, Elisabeth Rosenthal, senior contributing editor at KFF Health News, filled us in on the rapid growth of medical debt as a financial product, including specialized credit cards and financing plans pushed by hospitals and other providers.They can come with steep interest rates, and (surprise, surprise) the terms aren’t always spelled out clearly. The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been issuing reports, including a handy FAQ, but hasn’t taken enforcement action in a decade.Here’s a transcript of this episode. Send your stories and questions. Or call 724 ARM-N-LEG.And of course we’d love for you to support this show.