Paternity tests and psychics made the “The Montel Williams Show” a hit but after Williams was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999, he began taking on a more serious cause – the nation’s healthcare system. Williams tells the Resident about his sometimes controversial causes and why he thinks U.S. healthcare is “an abomination.”—Heather Corcoran
Has there been one moment on the show that sticks out as the most memorable?
MW: At the end of this year, I will have completed my 3,400th show. I’ve had over – this is really insane – almost 30,000 guests seated in my primary chair. We’ve talked about, easily, 2,000 different issues. I’m proud to say I know that over the course of the last 17 years we’ve done shows that have changed the nation. Talk shows were the first shows to talk about the fact that AIDS even existed, really. We made that more aware by bringing that into your household; Phil Donahue opened the door and started that.
For viewers, one of the most memorable moments was when you first talked about your diagnosis with MS. How has your outlook changed since then?
MW: It’s pretty much the same. I work tirelessly. I don’t say that to pat myself on the back, but I just came from a two-hour meeting on research about MS. It’s my life, not just because it’s killing me, but because I’m in a position that I can get information out to the public. I can bring resources together that would have never spoken together to work on ideas and projects to help cure this illness.
Could you tell me about the Montel Williams MS Foudation?
MW: The Montel Williams MS Foundation was founded in October of 2000. I started the Montel Williams MS Foundation because after I held a press conference and announced that I had MS, that I wanted to raise money, I had no place for the money to go. Initially, all money that we raised — over $400,000 in about four months – went to the Harvard foundation for neurological disease. After I established the Montel Williams Foundation, all funds that have come into the foundation that have come from private individuals we have re-dispersed to some of the top hospitals in the world that are working on specific MS projects. And that’s over $1.2 million.
What has been the high point and where have the lows been?
MW: The disease itself has its own lows. It took me a long time to understand and actually seek out the right medical help to clearly understand that MS – like a lot of other diseases – also causes things like depression. So it’s been a battle. The dark part of this disease is that unseen and unspoken little nasty secret, that a lot of us suffer from depression and don’t seek the proper help to deal with it. I’ve had to work at that; now I’m dealing with it. But the highs from this have been the tremendous opportunity to bring different voices together.
Which reminds me of another project you’ve worked on – the Partnership for Prescription Assistance, which provides free medication to people who can’t afford it.
MW: Most incredible thing I’ve done in my entire career. There’s nothing more rewarding. We can say what we want to say about the pharmaceutical industry, and a lot of people have a lot to say about them. I think they need to be vilified when they do things wrong, but they need to be vindicated when they do things right. This is one of those programs that they got right. In less than two years I’ve been able to use my face and put medication into the hands of over 4 million people in America who would not have otherwise gotten medication and saved their lives.
What do you think about the current state of healthcare in the U.S.?
MW: It’s an abomination, but it’s not an abomination for reasons that a lot of people think. We think prices are out of control; well in some ways, some are, but technology has costs. The recipients of that technology have to understand that. Where we miss the boat in the United States, where we could be the leader in the world, it’s not as much about a socialized medical system as it is about providing medical insurance to every single American.
Do you feel optimistic that a change is coming?
MW: I don’t think it’s going to get better, I think it’s only going to get worse. And unfortunately that is not because of the medical industry, it’s because of the policy and leadership we have in America.
One of the more controversial things that you’ve advocated is medical marijuana.
MW: I’m an advocate for the same thing that our federal government is an advocate for. Does that not sound like an oxymoron?
Could you explain it?
MW: I support the right of a doctor to make a decision for his patient. And if we think that doctor is smart enough to prescribe for his patients morphine, cocaine, barbiturates and other things, if that same doctor states that he feels that marijuana – or let’s just call it MD640, make up a name – if he felt that that worked for his patient, why should he not be the one that has the ability to prescribe it?
To explain what I meant by that earlier statement: For the last 27 years, and it may be 28, the United States government, our federal government, every single 17th of the month, through a program at the University of Mississippi, distributes medicinal marijuana to, now, five patients. For the last 20 years it’s been between 20 and five; as each patient dies they stop distributing it to that one. We have a government that’s supposed to do no harm. We have a government that should not be distributing anything that it doesn’t think [has efficacy] as far as medication. They’re distributing it to patients because they studied it for 25 years and determined that it works, so why do then they flip the coin and lie to the American public and claim that it doesn’t and continue to lock people up for doing the same thing that they do? So I am a proponent for medicinal marijuana. I want the same thing the federal government does.
The Montel Williams MS Foundation has two fundraisers scheduled in the New York area in September, a Westchester walk-a-thon on Sept. 15 and a bike-a-thon in Sag Harbor on Sept. 29. For more information visit montelms.org.