With 60 percent of bankruptcies caused by medical bills, performer Michael Milligan joins us to discuss his new play “Mercy Killers”
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica in Baltimore.
So, most of you know the U.S. healthcare system is the most expensive in the world and covers far fewer people than health care systems in other rich nations. But the number that is so staggering is that more than 60 percent of all bankruptcies are due to medical bills. That’s the subject of our special in-studio guest one-man play, Mercy Killers.
Now joining me in studio is Michael Milligan. He is a performer who has been writing and acting for theater for almost 2 decades. He has appeared on the Broadway stage for several plays, and his one-man play Mercy Killers was inspired by his personal experiences in the health care system.
Thanks for joining us, Michael.
MICHAEL MILLIGAN, ACTOR AND WRITER, MERCY KILLERS: My pleasure. My pleasure.
DESVARIEUX: So, as I was saying, this play was really inspired by your own personal experiences. Can you speak to that a little bit?
MILLIGAN: Yeah, yeah. I was–after graduating from Juilliard, I was traveling around, pursuing a career in the regional theater, and I was in a relationship with someone who had a lot of medical needs. And over the course of time, I experienced what it’s like to be with someone who has needs like that. And what the experience was like that I’d never seen anyone talk about in the news or comment the movies or on an episode of Gray’s Anatomy are the feelings of ambivalence and the darker feelings that people experience when a loved one is in a medical situation.
DESVARIEUX: And that medical situation, often you have to go up against the health care/insurance industry. Is that part of it, too?
MILLIGAN: Well, yeah, I mean, and also she’s an artist, so she was on and off of insurance and trying to maintain a career in the arts and stuff like that. So that eventually led me to question whether that was a good system or not.
And then I also had a friend from school who was homeless for a while, and he showed up at the stage door of a theater I was performing at, and he had some medical problems. And I was trying to get him some medical attention. And that was very, very eye-opening, how difficult that could be. And what I learned from that experience was–my initial response to him showing up at the stage door was, oh my God, I want to help my friend. Right? That’s the natural response. But then, shortly after that, was a feeling of, oh no, oh no, he’s going to drag me down with him. If I if I extend myself to this person, he’s going to drag me down because, like the old saying goes, you can’t rescue a drowning man when you’re just swimming yourself. Right?
DESVARIEUX: So let’s talk about the play. The main character–or the only character (it’s a one-man play) is sort of this average Joe type of guy. Right?
MILLIGAN: Yeah. His name’s Joe. He’s from southern Ohio. He’s an auto mechanic. He’s got his own shop. He’s kind of [of] a libertarian bent. And so he has real deeply held values of self-reliance, personal responsibility, those kind of things. And his wife gets sick. And so they get into a number of difficult situations. She loses her insurance, and then they go into the whole downward spiral of what you were talking about of how medical bankruptcy happens. And so he’s struggling also with his worldview, trying to understand how he could possibly be in the situation that he’s in, given that he has done everything right.
DESVARIEUX: Yeah. And you often have the audience participate in discussions after the show, right, to discuss some of these issues.
MILLIGAN: I do, I do. Yeah.
DESVARIEUX: What has really come up? What’s been the feedback?
MILLIGAN: Oh, it’s incredible. You know, I performed this, I suppose you can say, off the grid, in terms of the sort of normal theater crowd. I’m often hosted by local volunteer organizations, and we get in a really interesting crowd of people.
I would say that I’ve had three types of very interesting responses. One is from people who work in the medical field, doctors and nurses. After the show, when we’re doing our talk-backs, a doctor will share what it’s like for them or a nurse will share some specific incident of what it’s like for them to work in a system where decisions aren’t necessarily made based on the best treatment, but for financial reasons. And it can be heartbreaking to hear some of those stories. One doctor who worked in the ER was talking about a guy who got hit by a car, and his leg bone was sticking out of the skin, and they were getting him ready for surgery, and the guy was pushing people away, saying, please, please don’t do anything, because he’d just started a new job, and his insurance wasn’t going to kick in for three months. And so my friend the ER doctor was like, what? Look, we’re trying to help you. And he explained that situation and he said, I can’t afford–please do as little as you need, because I can’t afford this. Can you imagine that that’s–.
DESVARIEUX: Yeah. Powerful.
MILLIGAN: But to hear that kind of story from someone who works in medicine from the inside, again, it’s not something that you see on Chicago Hope or Grey’s Anatomy or one of our hospital shows, but that’s the reality.
MILLIGAN: So that’s very compelling. The other two groups often have conservative people come to the show. And in the talk-backs, we have interesting discussions. And some of the things that come out of those discussions aren’t, what I would think would be their ideas. It’s not something that you would hear on Fox news or something. For example–.
DESVARIEUX: Give me an example. Yeah.
MILLIGAN: Well, like, there was a CEO of a small company in Ohio who said, oh, you know, we–well, their first response was, government cannot do anything. Right?
DESVARIEUX: Yeah. I was going to ask you that. What do you say to those people who are like–.
MILLIGAN: Well, I said, what you think? What’s your solution? And her solution was, well, I think, first off, that all insurance companies and hospitals should be not-for-profit and the administrative salary salaries should be capped at, let’s say, $200,000. And I was like, wow, that’s not my solution. I am a single-payer Medicare-for-all person. But her solution sounded more progressive than the Affordable Care Act in some ways. And so I think that we haven’t really, as a society, had the dialog that we need to solve the problem, because we are divided into these ideological camps, and we resort to our talking points, and that immediately raises the defenses and resistances of the people we’re talking to. And so we never actually communicate to each other from the space of human empathy to have a real dialog about what do you think, what do you personally think. And I find that people’s–their personal beliefs are much different and don’t fit into a carefully circumscribed kind of political ideology.
MILLIGAN: And so my hope with the play is, because the play really is just a depiction of how something can happen to a couple and is an appeal to the heart of just let’s take a look at the things that happen–you know, the play itself doesn’t offer any kind of prescription for what we need to do; it’s just an appeal to people to open their hearts, ’cause I think we need to–the heart needs to be broken, right? ‘Cause it’s like a seed: you’ve got to crack the seed so that the flower can come out.
DESVARIEUX: So you’re going to perform a little bit of that play for us here at The Real News.
DESVARIEUX: And set the scene for us a little bit.
MILLIGAN: Okay. This is the interrogation room of a police station in southeastern Ohio. And Joe has been hauled in there. His wife has been sick. I said that. So right away there’s some suspicion that his wife is died and that he’s been dragged in there for some reason involved in her death.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. Alright. Great. Let’s get to it. Michael Milligan.
[excerpt from Mercy Killers]
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