As the campaign clock counts down to Election Day, some prime
time entertainment programs seem as if they’re trying to help
influence the outcome. In just over 24 hours, NBC viewers could have
seen three different drama series pushing plot lines which
reinforced some of the Gore campaign’s favorite themes, including
the notion that profiteering and exploding health care costs are
enriching private business while putting the public at risk.
On The West Wing, U.S. drug companies were painted as an
obstacle to successfully treating the AIDS epidemic in Africa. On
Law & Order, an HMO executive whose company was in charge of
administering a prison clinic was prosecuted for his cost-conscious
policy against referring patients to outside specialists, which in
this case meant a psychologically-disturbed inmate was released from
prison only to murder a woman for her reading glasses. And on ER,
a doctor who blew the whistle against a superior who was trying to
deny treatment to an uninsured patient found himself out of a job.
Here’s a run-down of last week’s NBC shows:
The West Wing
October 25, 9:00 pm ET/PT, 8:00 pm CT/MT
President Bartlett held a summit with the president of a
fictional African nation and the corporate leaders of American drug
companies to try and find a way that would cut the costs of AIDS
treatments. Bartlett’s Communications Director, Toby Ziegler, was
one of the main participants in the substance of the negotiations,
and he provided some of the most liberal lines of the show,
including twice pointing out that the anti-AIDS drugs are cheaper in
Norway than in Africa where the need is greater.
a meeting, the drug company executives were arguing that they are
doing as much as they possibly can, at which point the African
president asked about the profits on a different drug. One of the
executives questioned the point of bringing up that other drug,
which is apparently a treatment for impotence. Toby interjected, "I
think President Nabala is saying there’s more money in giving a
white guy an erection than curing a black guy of AIDS."
Outraged, the executive responded that "My company has given away
over $120 million worth of free drugs a year, including free doses
of Zyclocents (sp?), which is one of two drugs in your country
curing eye infections right now."
Toby, again speaking on behalf of the African president,
retorted: "They’re not dying from eye infections, Alan."
"Well, they’re not dying ‘cause of me either, Toby, and I’d like
not to be talked to this way," the executive defended himself.
"Alan, if it was 26 million Europeans dying, we’d have had a
solution yesterday," declared Toby.
At this point, Josh Lyman, another White House aide, interrupted
to ask one of the drug company executives how much it would cost to
distribute the medicine to patients in three countries. The
executive said he did not know. Incredulous, Josh asked, "Why not?
We’re talking about 130,000 patients, 200 milligram pills, three
times a day, every day. What’s the x factor?"
"We don’t know how long they’ll live," the executive answered,
reinforcing the cynical interpretation that the corporate leaders
were solely interested in the bottom line. The meeting is adjourned,
without reaching a resolution.
In the corridor later, Josh warned Toby to take a more tactful
approach with the executives. Toby, disagreed, pointing out that
"the pills cost them four cents per unit to make." Josh corrects
him: "You know that’s not true. The second pill costs them four
cents; the first pill costs them $400 million," referring to the
research costs that each company must recoup.
But Toby was undeterred: "They also enjoy unprecedented tax
breaks: foreign tax credits, research and experimentation
exemptions, and expensing of research expenditures, to say nothing
of the fact that business is pretty good."
Toby tried to put together an arrangement in which the three
African countries which this one president is representing at the
summit will receive discounted medicine if they promise to help
protect the patent rights of the U.S. companies involved. The
African president mournfully explained how demeaning it was for him
to plead for help from the Western business leaders. "It’s a
terrible thing to beg for your life, terrible," he told Toby. "My
father was a proud man. He built homes. He wouldn’t like what I came
here to do."
Toby assured him that he’s doing the right thing, but the show
concluded with the African president returning home to his country
despite a military coup, and the White House staff receiving the
news that he was shot to death at the airport when he arrived.
Law & Order
October 25, 10:00 pm ET/PT, 9:00 pm CT/MT
A woman was slain on the New York subway, and the detectives
spent the first half-hour of the show discovering that her killer
was a recently released inmate with psychological problems. The
killer claimed that his name was Regis Philbin, and that he killed
the woman for her eyeglasses because he couldn’t see who was talking
to him. The prosecutors, Abbie Carmichael and Jack McCoy, however,
used the fact that the suspect (whose actual name was Brian Gallant)
fled from the scene of the crime as an indication that he understood
right from wrong, and successfully persuaded his defense attorney to
accept a plea agreement that would mean a 10 to 20 year prison
At the court proceeding, however, the dead woman’s husband
angrily stood up in the courtroom, outraged that no one else was
being held liable for his wife’s death. "You say the one and only
person responsible for Steph getting killed is this lunatic?" he
asked indignantly. The judge told him that while she understood his
view, the court proceeding was not the right place to make his
"Tell me when you’re going to hold someone accountable for
turning him loose on Steph, and I’ll be there," the husband
challenged the others before sitting back down.
and Jack, informed their boss, the new District Attorney Nora Lewin,
that the man was released from prison only days before with a subway
token and a dollar and a half, and that he had logged numerous
visits to the prison’s clinic. Further investigation showed that the
city had recently privatized its prison clinic, placing the clinic
in the hands of a managed care company called SMJ Medical Services.
Abbie told Jack that the company was awarded monthly bonuses when it
held down costs.
"Which it does by not sending inmates to hospitals," Jack quickly
"Which is why Brian Gallant was never referred," concluded Abbie.
The killer’s doctor then told Jack and Abbie that he wasn’t
allowed to have the inmate properly evaluated by outside
specialists. Gallant’s doctor related that another doctor was fired
by SMJ for making too many outside referrals, and that the chief
executive had made it clear that he, too, would be fired if he
increased bottom line costs. "Look, I did the best I could. I was
paying off medical school loans, a mortgage. I have two kids," the
doctor explained to the prosecutors.
Jack McCoy agreed not to prosecute the doctor if he cooperates,
but ordered that he must lose his medical license for a year. When
the doctor’s lawyer protested, Jack insisted, "He took an oath, and
it wasn’t to an HMO."
They decided to prosecute the chief executive of the HMO, but
only after Nora Lewin warned them to "be sure and differentiate the
conduct of this HMO from the conduct of HMOs in general. That said,"
she added, "I’d like nothing better than to hang their heads on our
At the trial, the CEO declared that hospital referrals were lower
since his company assumed control of the prison clinic because they
had improved the clinic’s efficiency. He also argued that he had no
oversight role of Gallant’s treatment, or any other individual
As he began his cross-examination, Jack McCoy began flipping
through patient files. "Inmates diagnosed with heartburn would turn
out to have coronaries. HIV patients left untreated. Psych patients
left unevaluated. Is that your idea of improved medical services,
Mr. Andrews?" he challenged.
The CEO declared, "Like it or not, medical care is a business
today. No HMO can survive without conducting a realistic
cost-benefit analysis of its treatment protocols."
In his summation, the CEO’s lawyer offered this defense: "The
big, bad HMO — uncaring, unfeeling, placing profits before people in
its savage quest to make money — a convenient political target if
ever there was one." He then argued that the executive did his job
properly and wasn’t negligent. "Don’t let the political ambitions of
a district attorney pervert this court of law," the defense lawyer
admonished the jury.
The jury acquitted the CEO of the main charge, second-degree
manslaughter, but convicted him of a lesser included charge,
criminal negligent homicide. Afterwards, the D.A. told Jack and
Abbie that she’s going to appear on Dateline to talk about
the verdict. Jack told his boss, "They’ll probably try to get you to
say it opens the door to massive malpractice claims."
"Well, it’s worth it if it changes the way HMOs do business in
this city," Nora declared. Noting that the CEO will serve his time
in the same jail in which his company provides health services, she
acidly commented: "Let’s hope he’s got a good immune system."
October 26, 10:00 pm ET/PT, 9:00 pm CT/MT
On a previous week’s episode, Dr. Peter Benton sought permission
to treat an indigent patient who required regular kidney dialysis
treatments but who did a relatively poor job of taking care of
himself between treatments, a fact which meant he frequently arrived
in the ER in need of more costly emergency care. Dr. Robert Romano,
the hospital’s prickly chief of staff, told Benton that he wouldn’t
give his permission for the operation, instead telling Benton to
give the man bus fare to a different city so that he would no longer
be a drain on the Chicago hospital.
Unwilling to deprive the man of care, Benton anonymously called a
government investigator and related the facts of the case to her.
When Romano found out that the investigator was visiting the
patient, he raced to the ER and told the investigator that it was
all a misunderstanding, and the patient received the needed
In this week’s episode, Dr. Benton arrived to work and found that
the key card he normally used to get into the parking garage no
longer worked. Benton then discovers that he can’t log onto the
computer system. He asks Dr. Romano what the problem is, and Romano
tells him that he should be getting a letter saying his privileges
have been revoked.
Romano tells Benton that his "tattle-taling to the Inspector
General cost me a $50,000 fine, which my malpractice insurance
"Look, I was just looking out for my patient," Benton insisted.
Romano said the hospital also had to pay a substantial fine.
"Now, I had to recoup those moneys from somewhere, so I was forced
to eliminate the attending position. It’s all in the letter," Romano
"We can’t talk about this in private?" Benton asked.
"Why, Peter?" Romano said smirking. "You didn’t seem to feel the
need to talk in private about our problem. You just decided to go
off on your own."
Benton then asked, "So what is my position here?"
"You have no position here, Peter" Romano coolly replied.
"You’re firing me?" Benton asked.