Health care group hires Hollywood agent to repair tarnished image

By Gary Gentile, The Associated Press
Wednesday July 10, 2002

LOS ANGELES — The health care industry, tired of playing the bad guy in movies such as “John Q” and television shows, has hired an agent to help get better roles. 

The American Association of Health Plans, which represents more than 1,000 health maintenance organizations, has hired the William Morris Agency to help “build bridges” with writers, producers and directors and to offer technical advice for shows. 

“A huge segment of America is impacted by drama, which you could also call ’soft news,”’ Mark Merritt, senior vice president of the AAHP, said Tuesday. “What we’re trying to do is get a level playing field. We’re not saying it’s verboten to attack some part of the health care system. We’re saying there is another side to what we do.” 

Films and TV programs have often portrayed dedicated doctors fighting heartless hospital administrators or insurance companies. In recent years, that theme seems to have escalated with movies such as “As Good as it Gets” and television shows such as “ER” and “Chicago Hope.” 

Two hospital shows set for ABC and CBS this fall feature doctors providing care for patients in defiance of HMOs. 

The AAHC said it is hoping to have some influence on plot lines and scripts, but is not expecting to have veto power over stories. 

“We’re not here as censors,” Johnny Levin, senior vice president of William Morris Consulting, said. “No one wins by telling people what to write, what to produce and what to direct.” 

Earlier this year, “John Q,” starring Denzel Washington, told the story of father who can’t afford a heart transplant for his son and holds a hospital’s emergency room hostage. 

Instead of attacking the film, the AAHC bought ads deflecting the focus of anger from insurance plans to “a runaway litigation system and expensive government regulations.” 

Financial terms of the AAHC’s hiring of the agency were not disclosed.