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Former health care executive pushes critical film

Blake Farmer Oct 1, 2012
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The documentary “Escape Fire” will be in theatres around the country this week, making a case that the country’s profit-driven health care system isn’t necessarily making people healthier.

“When medicine became a business, we lost our moral compass,” says Dr. Steven Nissen, head of cardiology at Cleveland Clinic,  in the film. “I think we’ve gotten into a great deal of trouble because of that.”

One of the film’s unlikely backers is an entrepreneur in Nashville who made a fortune in the health care industry.

“I’m pointing fingers at myself almost,” says Clayton McWhorter, one of the wealthiest businessmen in Tennessee and a former executive with Hospital Corporation of America.

“Let me say, good people have made a lot of money off of a flawed health care system,” he says. “It’s fee for service. If you’re selling trinkets, you’ve got to sell a lot of them. I hate to say this, but we’re selling medicine.”

McWhorter says he’s long believed the health care business needs incentives to keep people out of hospitals instead of in them. But while running companies, McWhorter says he was merely playing by the rules.

“I sort of believe we have a system that we don’t want you to get well nor die, because either way we lose a customer,” he says.

In the twilight of his career, McWhorter has sponsored a health reform organization called SHOUTAmerica. The nonprofit has been hosting screenings of “Escape Fire” at the country’s top medical schools. The film calls into question drug companies for pushing prescriptions and hospitals for deferring to procedures instead of prevention.

But instead of flaws in the system, Larry Van Horn puts more blame on people. The Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management professor says the real problem in health care lies in the mirror.

“The reality is, people have to pay more and consume less and demand less care,” Van Horn says.

If patients stop thinking there’s a pill for every ill, Van Horn says hospitals and drug companies would focus on other things and possibly bring down the cost of health care. As for the documentary’s argument that health care lost its way when it became a business, Van Horn says medicine has always been profit-driven, even when people were bartering chickens for their check-ups. 

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