Speed Reads


John Oliver tackles kidney dialysis, Taco Bell, and what they can teach us about single-payer health care

On Sunday's Last Week Tonight, John Oliver dove headlong into the topic of kidney dialysis. Yes, he knows. "I know that right now you're getting ready to push the button on your TV remote marked 'Dear God Literally Anything Else,' but I promise you, this is worth listening to," he said. And really, it's more interesting than you probably think. He started off with a definition. "Dialysis is basically where a machine acts as your kidneys by taking blood out of your body, cleaning it, and then returning it to you," Oliver said. "Think of it as a Brita pitcher for your blood — which, yes, is more disgusting than I needed to make it sound."

Chronic kidney disease is the No. 9 cause of death in the U.S., but America pays more than its peers on dialysis care, for worse results, Oliver noted. "We're basically paying for a fully loaded Lamborghini and receiving a drunk donkey on roller skates." In 1972, Richard Nixon signed a law saying the government will pay for dialysis for anyone who needs it, "which is really incredible," he said. "Essentially, we have universal health care in this country for one organ in the body. It's like your kidneys, and only your kidneys, are Canadian."

As the cost of caring for the ballooning number of people in need of kidney dialysis has risen to about 1 percent of the federal budget, a lucrative for-profit dialysis industry has emerged, dominated by two companies. Oliver focused most of his report on the bigger one, DaVita, and its swashbuckling CEO, Kent Thiry. He ran through the alleged problems at DaVita clinics, and played a video of Thiry sort of owning up to the conveyor-belt culture. "Yes, you heard him right," Oliver said. "He just said he manages DaVita, a health-care company, like he would a Taco Bell, the exact opposite of a health-care company."

"Richard Nixon did a truly amazing thing," Oliver concluded. "He said we should take care of people with kidney disease, and we did it. And we should keep doing it, but we could do it a lot better. The care of America's kidneys is way too important to be treated like a fast-food experience." Which brought him back to Taco Bell, and a commercial Last Week Tonight created standing up for the fast-food chain, kind of. Watch below — be warned that there's NSFW language scattered throughout. Peter Weber