Superstore’s Super Disappointing Health Care Episode

superstoreCastThe sixth episode of the third season of Superstore got a little political. The episode opened with employees of the store “Cloud 9”–a not-so veiled stand-in for Wal-Mart–commiserating about how they were avoiding routine medical care because they simply couldn’t pay for it.  One of the employees has an idea to start a “health fund”–they could donate money to the fund each month, and then when one of them had a really serious health concern, they could draw money out to pay for medical care.

The episode then unfolds by showing how this innocent and worthwhile intention would be wrecked upon the rocks of reality: employees were giving $20 a month, but frequently wanted to withdraw thousands. By the end of the episode, the two employees who had spearheaded the idea were coming up with solutions that will be familiar to anyone who has shopped for health insurance: various tiers of care based on how much a given employee paid, for instance, and having the sicker members pay ten times what healthy members did. The episode concludes with the employees admitting that coming up with a solution to the healthcare crisis was far harder than they had imagined.

The episode is disappointing because it begins with an honest portrayal of a problem that millions of Americans face–but by the end, the episode basically mocks those who criticize our current healthcare system, and seems to suggest that, for all its faults, this is the best we can hope for. But the episode only reaches this conclusion by misrepresenting the problem and obscuring the real issues at play.

The health fund that the employees pull together functions by having the very-low-income employees pay into a fund to help each other. While the employees’ willingness to contribute to this kind of mutual-aid arrangement is itself laudable, it should be obvious from the outset why such a plan will never work. You can’t get blood from a stone, can you can’t get the fortune you need to pay for medical care from a group of poor people. They just don’t have the money.

The real question here, of course, is: why are these people so poorly paid to begin with? Why don’t they have the resources they need to pay for basic needs like medical care? In short, the healthcare crisis in this country is not really about technology, or government red tape, or poorly-managed corporate bureaucracies–although we could be doing better in each of these areas, of course. The healthcare crisis in this country is simply one of justice. People can’t access healthcare because they are not paid a just wage for their work. It really is that simple. If people were paid a living wage, they could afford healthcare. Because they are not paid a living wage, they cannot.

So while I was happy and excited when this episode of Superstore began, because I thought the writers might take this opportunity to address a serious topic, by the end of the episode it was clear that no serious discussion of the facts was forthcoming. In fact, by presenting the mutual-aid health fund as the only option to respond to the problem of exorbitant health care costs, this episode may actually deceive its viewers. It is telling that none of the employees ever mentioned political action, or, say, a strike as a way of securing better healthcare (to be fair, it is worth mentioning that the employees did successfully strike on a previous episode, so this topic has been positively addressed by this program). And the characters never once raised the simple question of whether they were being justly paid. Their poverty was simply taken for granted, as an unfortunate but unremarkable feature of the world that they simply had to accept.

This is a pernicious message to present to viewers, and those of us who want to see a more just world should be concerned–though, of course, not surprised–to see this message reinforced on network television. While we should not expect any show that is broadcast on a network owned by wealthy interests to speak honestly about the injustice of our economic system, we should consistently call attention to this kind of deceptive, bait-and-switch messaging on serious topics. I say all of this as a fan of Superstore; it’s one of the few current sitcoms my wife and I consistently watch. But if we can’t criticize things we like when they misstep, then we really can’t criticize anything. I hope this criticism of the episode can be the beginning of a more serious conversation about the injustice of our healthcare system.