heisenberg “Breaking bad” is the fictional tale of a man, Walter White, on a modest chemistry teacher’s salary who goes haywire after discovering he has lung cancer. He pays for his health care and supports his family by producing high quality methamphetamine. It’s great American entertainment. Drugs, gore, violence and the (a)moral values of society characterise most episodes.  

I know, I know, it’s just a TV series, but for me, it has dramatised some shocking truths about the US health care system. And I don’t mean to be a smug European, we are headed that way ourselves…

What shocked me watching “Breaking bad” was the banal violence within the health care system; the far-reaching (if a wee bit exaggerated) consequences on middle-class families; the extortionate price of treatments in the hundreds-of-thousands of dollars for chemotherapy, surgery, hospitalisation, physiotherapy… The series revolves around this topic, with central characters confronted again and again with the domino-effect on their lives when faced with health problems.

“How naïve you are to be shocked!”, you may say, and you’d be right. None of these issues illustrated in “Breaking bad” are exactly headline news. The adverse impact of privatised health care on social health inequalities is well known. What the series highlights so very clearly is the massive chasm in US society between the very rich and everyone else. The gulf is not buffered by social systems like health care provision, but in fact exacerbated by them. It underlines the tight-rope-walk between getting-by, and destitution.

I feel very lucky. I have lived in several western European countries, and have never once worried about the direct financial consequences of getting sick. When I or anyone in my life has been ill, the core treatments and care have been provided by the state, and not a second thought was given to that. The rest, the nice-to-have extras are certainly the privilege of wealthier and more resourceful among us. But, over the last few years fissures and cracks in the provision of universal health care have been appearing in many European countries. In the UK, the National Health Service, a tenet of post-war social democracy, is being dismantled and sold-off. In France, treatments and health care once paid for by the state are being quietly shifted into the private health insurance sphere. More and more exceptions are being made about what is covered under state provisions.

I haven’t seen the last series of “Breaking bad”, so don’t spoil it for me. Here’s my imagined Disney-like ending:

Walt uses his hard-earned dirty money to push through a revolutionary health care bill (informally known as “Whitecare”) that caters for US residents across the social gradient. Thanks to Walt’s persuasiveness, immigration status, income, ethnicity and prior health conditions no longer affect your access to health care, no longer differentiate you from the wealthy in terms of life-expectancy…

Did I guess that right?

What are the upsides to such a lamentable health care system? It brought us the escapism of “Breaking bad” for one. More importantly, it has shown us a route worth avoiding if we want to live in a more equal society. In Europe, we need to fight tooth-and-nail to keep our access to health care free at the point of need. In the US, my fairy-tale ending is a real possibility. With a pinch of political will and large cup-full of cultural change via  “Obamacare”…


11-Country Health Care Survey: U.S. Adults Spend Most; Forgo Care Due to Costs, Struggle to Pay Medical Bills, and Contend with Insurance Complexity at Highest 

CDC Health Disparities and Inequalities Report — United States, 2013

“Obamacare”: The patient protection and affordable care act