Many people love or hate the films of Michael Moore as much for his persona as his politics. Some find him a priceless gadfly; others find him obnoxious. So his extraordinarily prescient attack on a sitting president, Fahrenheit 9/11 , went practically unseen by the half of the country that most needed to see it.
Hopefully, Moore’s new film, Sicko , will do more than preach to the choir. Who can argue that the health care system in America is anything but broken? You may as well argue that cigarettes don’t kill you. So there’s much less snide irony in this documentary, and less of Moore himself. He simply set up a website in which he asked readers to send him their most egregious examples of managed care betrayal. In one week, he got 30,000 responses. He has allowed the victims to speak for themselves.
The opening image is of Adam, one of America’s 50 million uninsured, stitching shut a huge gash in his own knee with a needle and thread. We meet Larry and Donna, a couple in their 50s. They were solidly middle class until he had heart attacks and she got cancer. Ruined by medical bills, they now live in their daughter’s storeroom. Or take Rick, who cut off two fingers with a table saw. The hospital offered to reconnect his ring finger for $12,000, or his middle finger for $60,000. He chose the ring finger. I hope he gave them the other one.
So what about the 250 million Americans who do have insurance? Surely they are covered? Not Laura. She was in a car crash. Her HMO wouldn’t pay for the ambulance because it wasn’t pre-approved. "When was I supposed to do that?" she asks. "After I regained consciousness?" Tarsha did get pre-approval for her operation; but afterwards, her HMO discovered that she had once failed to include a yeast infection in her health history. They took their money back. Diane was told that her brain cancer was not considered "life threatening". So she died.
The most powerful testimony comes from two HMO insiders. Lee headed a team charged with rooting out inconsistencies in patients’ health history, in order to deny their claims. "You didn’t slip through the cracks," he says. "Somebody put the crack there and swept you towards it." Linda, formerly of Humana, in testimony before Congress, explains that medical reviewers were expected to have a minimum 10% denial rate; the higher the rate, the higher the bonuses and promotions. In 1987, she signed a patient’s death warrant by denying him a needed operation. It secured her reputation as a talented medical reviewer, and she went from making a few hundred dollars a week to six figures.
Our current private health care system was put in place on February 18th,1971, by Nixon, Ehrlichman, and Kaiser. Clearly, it is weighted not to provide better care, but to maximize profits. Billions of those dollars are spent lobbying Congress to maintain the status quo. But what’s the alternative? We have been told by both George Bushes that national healthcare in countries like Canada, Britain, France, and Cuba provides terrible care; underpays doctors; is made possible only by crippling taxes; and opens the door for government intrusion in every aspect of life. Is this true? Rather than recount the case Moore makes, it is better if you go in with an open mind, travel to those countries with him, and see the evidence with your own two eyes.
I heard a lot of sobbing from my audience during Sicko . Maybe we’re almost ready to rise to the challenge raised in the film by a former member of British Parliament. "Before democracy," he says, "the rich had all the power. With democracy, power went from the wallet to the ballot. Now the British people will never give it back. If you can find money to kill people, you can find money to help people."
Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.