Since Jimmy Kimmel’s monologue about his son’s lifesaving heart surgery at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, phone calls have overwhelmed Paul Viviano’s switchboard.
“We’ve had a flood of calls,” Viviano, the hospital’s CEO, told STAT in an interview Thursday. “Patients and families are calling about, ‘Will you treat this? Can we see you for that?’ We’ve had other calls about advocacy — this notion of preexisting conditions that Jimmy brought to the forefront. People want to know how they can advocate on behalf of children.”
On that last request, Thursday is a consequential day, and one that weighs heavily on Viviano’s mind.
The House is on the verge of voting on a health care overhaul that would fundamentally reshape US insurance markets. Republican supporters promise it will reduce premiums and allow more people to buy the coverage they want. Democrats say it will obliterate consumer protections that save babies with health issues like Billy Kimmel, but whose families don’t have the resources to pay for their care.
“These are very difficult choices, and I do see them becoming much more frequent if this bill were to pass as is,” Viviano said just a few hours before the vote.
About 70 percent of the hospital’s patients are on Medi-Cal, the state’s low-income insurance program.
Viviano ticked off a long list of concerns:
- Changing Medicaid to state block grants could reduce funding for services to low-income patients.
- A waiver allowing states to opt out of the ban on charging patients more for preexisting conditions could reduce coverage.
- Allowing states to determine essential health benefits could lead to skimpier plans for millions of American with individual and employer-sponsored policies.
- Reducing those guaranteed benefits could gut protections against annual out-of-pocket spending limits and lifetime coverage caps.
He said a lifetime diagnosis like the one facing Kimmel’s son typically results in hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs and that Kimmel’s central argument — families should not be forced to choose between their children and financial solvency — is a dilemma that his hospital’s patients repeatedly face. Funding for Medicaid programs like Medi-Cal, he said, is a lifeline.
While the current political debate over coverage is highly charged, Viviano said his advocacy for greater Medicaid funding and children’s insurance coverage does not come from ideology. It comes from the lives of his patients. The tragedies facing them usually unfold quietly, away from the media spotlight, in a waiting room where parents cry and worry and hope that medicine will save their child, no matter what the cost.
Viviano said Kimmel’s monologue offered a powerful boost for hospital morale, because it brought that worry and those tears into the public domain. The comedian described his anguished wait during his son’s procedure, its successful outcome, and the series of surgeries he will face in coming years. He also took out a list and thanked the nurses and doctors involved in his son’s care, both at Cedars Sinai Hospital, where his son was born, and at Children’s Hospital LA, where he received his surgery.
Through tears, Kimmel added, “No parent should have to decide if they can afford to save their child’s life. It just shouldn’t happen. Not here.”
Viviano said the next time he sees Kimmel, he will thank him.
“His son is going to require ongoing care, so I know they’ll be here on a very frequent basis to our clinics, and we’ll certainly take the opportunity to share with him what a big impact this has had.”
Hearing the story retold on national TV, Viviano said, has been therapeutic for his staff.
“It was reinforcing for the work we do, and he took one very meaningful step beyond that by connecting this care that his son received to the much broader issue – to today’s consideration of the AHCA. As a provider to all children, we see this as a significant potential threat to us and to them.”