The Connection Between Obamacare and ‘Breaking Bad’

The implementation of the Affordable Care Act and the series finale have a lot in common, says Jamelle Bouie.

With this Sunday ends Breaking Bad and the saga of Walter White. Two days later, on October 1, the Affordable Care Act goes online, and millions of Americans will have access to health insurance purchased through regulated exchanges.

These events aren’t as unrelated as they look. Remember, the instigating action of the series is White’s cancer diagnosis—in order to pay for his treatments and leave a nest egg for his family, he teams up with a former student to make and sell methamphetamine. The moral logic of this aside, it’s not hard to see why he made the choice. Even with health insurance, courtesy of Albuquerque public schools, White had to make large initial deposits (in one case, of $5,000) and deal with expensive hospital stays. The surgery to remove cancer from his lungs cost nearly $200,000, an impossible sum for the vast majority of Americans, to say nothing of a public school teacher.

And all of this is subject to lifetime limits. Thanks to the high cost of treatment for terminal cancer, White was guaranteed to reach the cap on benefits. After that, he and his family would have been fully responsible for all costs.

Breaking Bad begins in 2008. If it had taken place just two years later, White wouldn’t have had to worry about lifetime limits. Under ACA provisions that took effect in 2010, just a few months after the law was signed, insurance companies are prohibited from imposing lifetime limits on benefits. If the series had started in 2014, the year Obamacare is fully implemented, White would have had few financial worries. Not only is that the year the law bans annual limits on insurance coverage, but it also puts a cap on out-of-pocket expenses for families and individuals. At most, the White family would have had to pay $12,700 for Walt’s care. A large sum, but not so much that it makes sense to go into the meth-dealing business.

With Obamacare, Walter White’s life wouldn’t have made very good television. After all, who would want to watch a show about the humdrum life of a high school chemistry teacher with decent health insurance?