Insurance. Unless you’re Willy Loman, it’s not the most exciting of topics. When you think of the stuff of great Hollywood drama, it’s not exactly the first thing that leaps to mind.

However, when you think about health insurance, well, that’s a different matter entirely. Because when it comes to life’s biggest moments — birth, death, sickness, health — health insurance companies are often right there in the middle of them.

And that’s probably the reason why Hollywood has given a bit more love to films about the healthcare insurance industry than you might have expected. From documentaries to feature-length dramas, several riveting stories have been told. This article will introduce you to some of the best.

Sicko (2007)

If you’re looking for a documentary that really digs into the healthcare insurance industry, then you’re not going to get much better than Sicko, from acclaimed documentarian, Michael Moore.

Released at the height of the public debate over the right to “universal healthcare” in the United States, the film presents some pretty harrowing, and heartbreaking, stories of the failure of the American health insurance system. It also explores the immense wealth and power of the health insurance industry.

For all that Moore’s film gets right about the undeniable problems of the American health system, however, there are some things the film gets wrong, or, at least, not quite right. Moore is a master of the good-vs-evil narrative construct, and in the film, the for-profit healthcare industry certainly seems to fall into the latter category.

The truth, though, is that making money in medicine isn’t necessarily an evil, especially when that money is used for the public good. Nurse advocates and lobbyists, for example, devote their careers to raising awareness about important health issues. Nurse lobbyists in particular dedicate their professional lives to fighting for public policies, legislation, and funding to advance medical research and optimize patient care.

John Q (2002)

When it comes to combining action and suspense with tear-jerking family drama, John Q sets a new standard. It’s the story of an unlikely working-class hero, played by the inimitable Denzel Washington, who takes a hospital emergency room hostage when his health insurance company refuses to pay for his young son’s heart transplant.

To be sure, when it comes to melodrama, John Q is pretty much off the charts. But there’s more than a kernel of truth embedded in the film’s intense storyline. According to recent estimates, more than 79 million Americans are carrying medical debt, and the effects of that debt can be devastating, ranging from foreclosures to the inability to secure a car loan or a new job. 

In fact, medical debt is among the leading causes of bankruptcy US, though the good news is that it is possible to negotiate repayment, settlement, and even debt forgiveness plans with your creditor or insurance provider. And that means that patients perhaps have a bit more power with their insurance provider than films like John Q would suggest.

The Rainmaker (1997)

Based on the best-selling novel by John Grisham, The Rainmaker is the ultimate David versus Goliath story. It’s the tale of a small-town lawyer, fresh out of law school — not to mention cash — who decides to take on a multi-billion dollar insurance giant.

The storyline centers not only on the neophyte attorney Rudy Baylor, deftly played by Matt Damon, but also on his first clients, an aging couple desperate to save their young adult son. With the parents’ health insurance company denying their leukemia-stricken son the breathtakingly expensive bone marrow transplant that just might save his life, the parents turn to Baylor, because he is the only attorney they can afford and the only one daring, or foolish, enough to take their case.

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of The Rainmaker is that it doesn’t simply retrace the “traditional” cancer narrative, which almost always centers on the nobility and suffering of the patient, the tragedy of the life cut short, and the loss suffered by their loved ones.

Though inflected with the exaggerated drama and familiar plot twists of the star-studded Hollywood film, The Rainmaker still speaks to important realities that patients and their families face. Including the sometimes profound role that health insurance providers can play in determining, and even limiting, one’s treatment options.

The Takeaway

The health insurance industry, without question, plays an important role in American life. It drives political debate and shapes people’s healthcare choices. And Hollywood has taken note, creating powerful documentaries and riveting dramas to understand how these realities might play out in people’s lives. And while both fictional and nonfictional films may take their share of creative license, they nevertheless speak to important truths and ask vital questions about the right to healthcare and the tragedy of its denial.