Hey, remember all those signs and speeches during the pandemic praising America’s essential workers for literally putting their lives in the line every single day to keep the country functioning? That was really nice, especially as COVID (currently incubating new and adaptively murderous strains in the unmasked bodies of the selfishly unvaccinated) reminds us that a pandemic isn’t fucking over because Fox News and your conspiracy-prone racist uncle on Facebook claim it is. Well, John Oliver—as is his way—pumped the brakes on the little back-patting party we beleaguered citizens are throwing ourselves for paying lip service to legitimate heroes like our local EMT workers on Sunday, dedicating his main story to showing how low pay, dangerous conditions, and unfathomably stingy government policy routinely short-change the very people communities count on to keep them alive.
And, sure, Oliver did note the ridiculously expensive, often sucker-punching cost of an ambulance ride in this country at the outset. A story about a poor commuter pleading for helpful bystanders not to call an ambulance even as said samaritans are trying to extricate her leg from between a subway platform and an entire train isn’t going to make anybody forget how fun it is to get a crippling surprise ambulance bill at the worst possible time. But, as Oliver traditionally does, the Last Week Tonight host showed how blaming EMT workers for big bills is some seriously misguided scapegoating of hard-working people also being crushed by a broken-down system.
How broken is the country’s EMT network? Well, as Oliver notes, in 39 states, ambulance drivers and paramedics aren’t even classed as “essential,” even though, for many rural areas, the sparse ambulance crews are literally the only medical lifeline people have. Or how, like their unlucky, under-insured patients, EMT crews are routinely turning to crowdfunding pleas in order to make up constant budget shortfalls. Or how, even in big cities like Chicago, Oliver plays a terrifying clip of one dispatcher uttering the phrase to a 911-calling victim, “We’re all out of ambulances, we’ll let you know.” Plus, as Oliver complains, our ambulances ear-shredding sirens don’t even make the undoubtedly tension-puncturing sound of their cousins in Brussels, where an oncoming emergency vehicle sounds, in Oliver’s words, “like Mickey Mouse getting fucked on a washing machine—in a good way.”
And while Oliver does decry commonplace policies like the “you call, we haul” system, where EMTs are incentivized to take every patient to an emergency room (because, in many cases, that’s the only way the often privately-owned company gets paid), he notes again that it’s not the EMT’s fault. Once more picking out a representatively loathsome villain of the week to illustrate just how screwed up this whole system is, Oliver made merry sport at the expense of one Lynn Tilton. If that name sounds familiar, it’s probably because the self-proclaimed corporate savior parlayed her success in swooping in to squeeze cash out of failing businesses into a reality show called Diva Of Distressed (since cancelled). Or, you know, from the bankruptcy court ruling that named Tilton responsible for running the struggling private ambulance company TransCare into the ground, laying off scores of those EMT heroes after forcing them to work in increasingly decrepit ambulances and urging workers to just go ahead and swipe expensive medical supplies from their local ERs. (She’s also showed telling the workers of a company she’s just acquired, “No pussies in my mill,” while somehow not being pelted with rocks.)
As ever, Oliver concludes by noting some common sense solutions and ruefully mocking the fact that we’re not going to enact them any time soon. Medicare For All would fix a lot of this snarled and unfair billing, but apparently making sure everyone can call an ambulance when a train falls on them without fear of crippling debt is socialism. There’s a bill that would stop surprise billing of the type one family saw when, after pulling over a few blocks from the hospital so the very pregnant mom could give birth in the family car, they were smacked with $3,500 in bills from an ambulance ride the rest of the way. But, as Oliver notes, some people in congress thought that was too beneficial and exempted everything but medical chopper rescues from being regulated. So, as the COVID wards are filling up again with the patriotically un-vaccinated choking on their own lung tissue, Oliver sent out an emergency call for people to put their money where their colorful bumper stickers are to actually work toward getting these no-joke heroes the living wage and job security they undeniably deserve.