An Arm and a Leg: An interview with the show creator, Dan Weissmann
Health insurance and the cost of healthcare in the US is complicated, to say the least. Coverage, co-pays, in-network, out-of-network, HSAs, deductibles, and universal codes: it seems like you need a PhD just to figure out how much you’ll be charged to get a checkup (let alone get treatment for a life-threatening illness). Dan Weissmann knows this first-hand. He quit his insurance-providing job to do his own thing and in the process he has found himself navigating the healthcare minefield to make sure his family is not left vulnerable to exorbitant healthcare expenses. He’s documenting this journey, talking to experts, and telling patient stories on his new podcast, An Arm and a Leg. Dan was kind enough to give me some of his time to tell me more about his podcast.
PBC: Give us the quick hit description of your podcast.
Dan: My “elevator pitch” has been, “I’m doing a podcast about the cost of health care. It’s called An Arm and a Leg”—and that’s usually been enough to get a knowing nod, and a twinkle in the eye from whoever I’m talking with.
And the short description on iTunes is: “No surprise, the cost of health care is… unhealthy. Reporter Dan Weissmann digs up revealing, surprising stories—and some straight-up hacks—that can help us get a little less scared and confused about the mess we’re in. We may be screwed, but we’re together. Let’s talk.”
PBC: Why did you decide to start it?
Dan: As a reporter, I had pitched this as a beat to employers for years. It’s the most ginormous story—it affects just about everybody, in the most intimate and dramatic ways. It’s both a really, really human story, and a really, really big-picture story.
And then I found myself living in the story: I was ready to leave the job I was in, but didn’t know what my next project would be. I thought about changing careers. I mean, the alternative was going out on my own, and that just seemed unthinkable. My wife has her own business. Who would get the health insurance for our family?
But…hmmm. This issue that I’ve been interested in—the cost of health care—was now running my life. And I didn’t see anybody doing this full time. There’s tons of coverage of the politics side—Democrats say this, Republicans say that—and there is a pretty steady drip of individual horror stories.
But I didn’t see any journalism outlet with an ongoing conversation about how we all just live with this every day. Or asking, as an ongoing thing: How did we get here? And is there anything any of us can do about it?
I asked some friends to talk me out of it. They didn’t. But they did help me see that any show on this topic has to be more surprising, and even entertaining—plus occasionally useful—than it is enraging and terrifying and depressing.
PBC: What is your background and how do you think that’s helped you with this project?
Dan: I’ve been reporting for public radio and podcasts for about ten years—including work with 99% Invisible, Planet Money and Reveal, and stints on staff at Marketplace and WBEZ.
Before that, I had a long apprenticeship in print as an investigative reporter, so I bring a big journalistic toolkit to this project. And my first love is theater, which is why I was eager for so many years to move from print into audio: it brings together what I love about journalism—telling true stories that matter—with so many of theater’s delicious storytelling tools.
PBC: Going in to this, did you have any experience in healthcare?
Dan: Only as a customer. 😉
PBC: Have you found any resources that you think would be helpful for someone as they consider leaving a job with health benefits?
Dan: Wow, such a great question. I think that would be a great season of our show. Tucking that away…
PBC: What do you hope people get out of your podcast?
Dan: I hope the show is useful to people in a bunch of ways—and the first is, just being good company.
One version of that is that telling surprising, revealing stories in a fun, smart way about this stressful topic may help us bring down our blood pressure enough to think a little more clearly about everything we’re up against.
Another version of “being good company” is that we can have a dark laugh or two together, console each other a little bit, and maybe sing some hilarious punk-rock campfire songs of rage together. I mean, I need that too.
I do also hope the show can be useful in immediate and practical ways: I personally want to discover ways to be smarter and less overwhelmed by all of this information. I’m looking for inspiration and hope, and I’m looking for hacks.
One thing that’s cool is that listeners have started to write in with hacks of their own. I’m excited to start exploring and sharing more of that as we go forward.
And over time I hope that we’ll all start to actually get a little smarter about all of this—in a way that we can put to use over the long term.
In my wildest dreams, I hope we figure how to effectively advocate for bigger-picture changes, together.
PBC: I see that you won a Chicago Awesome Foundation award and that you were featured on Radiotopia’s 99% Invisible! Congrats – that’s exciting! I guess I already know the answer to this question, but how has the response been?
Dan: It has been SO overwhelmingly nice. People are saying that they’re getting what I hoped they would get: entertainment, company, consolation, information, all of it.
I think my favorite review on iTunes is the one that says: “Who the hell would’ve thought that a podcast topic, such as healthcare, medical bills, affordability of care, access to healthcare.. etc.. etc.. (a topic that can easily make you go crosseyed & feel incredibly helpless) would actually be Very interesting, funny, real, raw, and a breath of fresh air!”
Another one says: “I have been waiting for a podcast to come out just on this very topic. The healthcare system thrives in part by being hard to understand and navigate, so being able to have this broken down is not only interesting but empowering.”
YES. When I read these kinds of responses—and there are a bunch of them—I feel so grateful and happy.
And we are getting TONS of emails. Some people just write to say they like the show, and lots and lots of people are sending in stories and tips. The responses are really personal, really smart, really generous, really open.
We’re starting to incorporate a few of those stories already, and there’ll be more in season two. But, it’s also just super, super meaningful that people are trusting me with these stories.
And people are also stepping up to support the show through Patreon, which is so, so meaningful. I couldn’t be more grateful or encouraged.
PBC: Any future plans you want to tell us about?
Dan: Our first season wraps up on December 18, and we are just starting to plan Season Two.
PBC: Outside of your own, what podcasts are you loving lately (new finds or old favorites)?
Dan: My favorite one to recommend is The Alien Adventures of Finn Caspian—it’s a funny, smart serialized adventure show for kids and families. I’ve got a nine year-old and our whole family loves it. Some of the running gags—and even one-time bits—have become part of our family’s shared folklore. Jonathan Messinger, who makes it, has a son a little younger than mine who he credits as his “editor” and who weighs in, on tape, at the end of most episodes. It is so warm, and funny, and SMART. I’m a super-fan.
I’m also so very proud of my friend Robin Amer for her show The City, which does long-form/serialized investigative journalism. The first season, which just wrapped, looked at a giant illegal dump that blighted a Chicago neighborhood and why it was allowed to stay—spoiler alert: the guy who created it had the FBI’s backing. The second season sounds like it’s going to be really interesting: it’s about a strip club in Reno, Nevada fighting the city’s attempt to clean up its image.
PBC: How can people find out more and follow you?
Dan: Thank you so much for asking! Our website is armandalegshow.com. We’re in all the places you get podcasts (here’s the Apple Podcasts link, for instance), plus Twitter and Facebook.
… and here’s our Patreon. There’ll be some extra content there. Most of it is public, because it’s important that all of our stories and useful information is 100 percent free for everybody. (But there are a few fun rewards, including at least one interview that didn’t quite make it into Episode Three… with Woody Guthrie’s daughter.)
Finally, we’ve got a newsletter you can sign up for: New episodes, plus stories we’re noticing elsewhere, some excerpts from listener emails… and it’ll be a great way to keep up with us between seasons and to hear about Season Two.
This interview was posted on December 5, 2018.