Killing for Health

‘Breaking Bad’ Is Fully Dependent on Our Broken Health-Care System

Tricia Romano on how the hit AMC drama speaks volumes about the state of America’s health-care system.

Greg Peters/AMC

When Breaking Bad first aired on AMC in January 2008, the country wasn’t yet in a recession and Obamacare wasn’t a word, but the health-care debate was front and center.

Though candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton differed on the specifics, they agreed that the U.S. health-care system, which was bankrupting so many people, needed an overhaul. (John McCain, of course, didn’t support anything resembling single-payer or universal health care.)

By the time Breaking Bad’s second season premiered, everything had changed. The unemployment rate was skyrocketing, and people were losing their homes. Obama had just been sworn in and promised to reform the health-care system. Fixing health care wasn’t just a pie-in-the-sky dream; it now had a renewed urgency.

Walter White (Bryan Cranston)’s initial foray into making meth was about paying for his cancer treatment and keeping his family from going broke. And he was a man with health insurance. Imagine his desperation had he been without it, as 55 million Americans are, according to the Commonwealth Fund.

In Breaking Bad’s first few seasons, Walt struggled to come up with the cash to pay for his treatment. The $5,000 deposit at the oncology center was a fraction of the overall expense, which would total $90,000, a number only the rich could afford. Forget about a high school chemistry teacher. Later his hospital stay runs up another $13,000 tab. And while Walt grumbles to Skyler (Anna Gunn) about stealing from his pension, he does the math—it’s going to take a lot of meth to make a dent in his financial hole.

On Sunday night, during White’s gross, false videotaped “confession,” he talked about how he was afraid the cancer diagnosis would “bankrupt his family.” He spoke of paying for his brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris)’s health care—$177,000—which Hank called the “last nail in the coffin” preventing him from going to the DEA and spilling the beans.

In what other country would “I paid for your health care” be a menacing bribe?

If Breaking Bad had aired the ’80s, it would have read as a giant “Just Say No” campaign. But in 2013, with health-care costs rising and Obamacare on the brink of becoming a reality, the show’s main takeaway isn’t “meth is bad,” “money is evil,” or “people can’t change their nature.” Breaking Bad almost seems to be saying good health care is worth killing for.

Walter White finds other reasons to continue his downward spiral into madness—he’s a prideful, resentful, ego-driven sociopath, after all. Skyler was asking Walt how much money would be enough to feed his ego and desire for power when she took him to the storage unit and showed him a bed of cash. But though his cancer had receded at that point, Walt’s bed of money is a good reminder of how much money Americans really need to cover their health-care expenses, for cancer in particular. According to the National Cancer Institute, national cancer-care costs were $124 billion in 2010—$12.12 billion of that just for lung-cancer costs.

The average person spends $8,233 a year on health care, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Health care accounts for 17.6 percent of the U.S. GDP, 1.5 times more than any other country.

What’s interesting about Hank’s situation in particular is how ignorant he is about his own insurance policy: “$177,000,” he says. “Hell’s he talking about? Why were they paying for my medical bills? What about my insurance?”

Marie (Betsy Brandt), who works as a radiology technician, certainly knows how the system works. She gives Hank a lesson in Insurance 101: “Insurance wouldn’t have covered the treatment that you needed.” She adds: “Without it, you never would have been able to walk again.”

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Hank’s ignorance is likely an accurate reflection of many Americans’ inability to comprehend just how crappy our system is. Most people wrongly assume that if they have coverage, they are golden. But they don’t realize that even with that precious, must-be-protected-at-all-costs, employer-paid health care, they could still go bankrupt thanks to the magic phrase “out-of-pocket expenses.”

Indeed, medical care is the biggest cause of bankruptcies in the U.S., according to several studies, including one by Harvard University and a recent study by NerdWallet.

According to NerdWallet: “Despite having year-round insurance coverage, 10 million insured Americans ages 19-64 will face bills they are unable to pay.”

In 2005 Harvard researchers found that in half of the bankruptcies they studied, medical causes were cited as the reason for declaring bankruptcy.

A few have noted that Breaking Bad couldn’t be set in any other country but the U.S., something star Cranston acknowledged in a 2011 Rolling Stone interview. “If we did have universal health care five years ago, the show might not have worked,” he said. “Thank God Obamacare wasn’t in play five years ago. Whew!”

An Internet meme imagined if Breaking Bad were set in Canada, which has socialized medicine. The Canuck Breaking Bad wouldn’t last long, it turns out.

“You have cancer. Treatment starts next week,” says the doctor in the first frame.

There’s only one other panel.

“The End.”