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We know what the diagnosis is and what needs to be done. Now the question is whether the American public has what it takes to drive the con men and other crooks from the corridors of power.
Three reviews of this important film published in The Nation magazine.
SiCKO Is Boffo
by David Corn
In 1971, Edgar Kaiser, the son of the founder of Kaiser Permanente, one of the first big HMOs, went to see John Ehrlichman, a top aide to President Nixon, to lobby the Nixon White House to pass legislation that would expand the market for health maintenance organizations (HMOs). Ehrlichman reported this conversation to Nixon on February 17, 1971. The discussion, which was taped, went like this:
Ehrlichman: I had Edgar Kaiser come in…talk to me about this and I went into it in some depth. All the incentives are toward less medical care, because the less care they give them, the more money they make.
President Nixon: Fine.
The next day, Nixon publicly announced he would be pushing legislation that would provide Americans “the finest health care in the world.”
When tapes of the Nixon-Ehrlichman conversation and Nixon’s subsequent public statement are played halfway through Michael Moore’s new movie SiCKO, it is one of the film’s more revealing moments. By this point in the film, Moore has already demonstrated that health insurance companies and HMOs are parasitic villains that routinely deny necessary medical care to make more bucks–even when their money-grubbing leads to the death of patients. Looking for the original sin that led to the present mess, Moore zeroes in on this Nixonian moment, which encapsulates the film’s premise that the United States health care system is defined by a fundamental conflict: profit versus care, and–no surprise–profit beats care.
Moore makes this point magnificently in SiCKO, which is the best film in the Moore canon. I say this as one who had a mixed reaction to Fahrenheit 9/11. (See here.) This time around, Moore has crafted a tour de force that his enemies will have a tough time blasting (though they will still try). It’s not as tendentious as his earlier works. It posits no conspiracy theories. The film skillfully blends straight comedy, black humor, tragedy, and advocacy. You laugh, you cry–literally. And you get mad.
The film stitches together a string of health care horror stories. Moore opens the movie by looking at two cases involving Americans who don’t have health insurance. One fellow who sliced off the tips of two fingers is told at the hospital that he can attach the ring finger for $12,000 and the middle finger for $60,000. He can’t afford both. Ever the romantic, Moore reports, this man opts to save his ring finger.
But SiCKO is not about the uninsured. It’s about those who have insurance and who have been screwed. Moore began this project by advertising on the Web for tales of health care woe. Within a week, he had received 25,000 emails. That’s plenty of raw material. One enterprising father of a child who was going deaf and whose insurance company would only pay for one ear implant wrote his insurance firm and asked if its CEOs would like to appear in Moore’s film. The company–whaddayaknow–quickly authorized payment for the other implant.
From this flood of complaints, Moore drew compelling and heartbreaking stories. A woman is denied payment for a major procedure because she neglected to mention on her insurance application that she once had a yeast infection (which was, of course, unrelated to the procedure she needed). A mother loses her 18-month-old daughter because a hospital won’t treat her without authorization from her insurance company and her insurer insists she takes the child (during an emergency situation) to an in-network hospital. A woman who was in a car crash is denied payment for an ambulance trip because she did not receive pre-approval for that cost. A man is denied a bone-marrow transplant that could save his life and dies.
Moore interviews health care industry insiders who confirm the worst suspicions. A former employee at a health insurance sales centers cries as she talks about how she was trained to handle prospective clients who might be health risks. “I’m such a bitch on the phone,” she says. Doctors who worked for health care companies tell how they were encouraged to deny claims to save their companies money. Medical reviewers for one health insurance company who rendered the most denials received bonuses. Footage from a video surveillance camera shows a Los Angeles hospital dumping an indigent patient on Skid Row. “Who are we?” Moore asks. “Is this what we have become: a nation that dumps its own citizens?”
Moore’s meta-message is, It doesn’t have to be this way. He visits Canada, England, and France and compares their health care delivery systems to America’s. He plays this for loads of yucks. In a British hospital, he goes looking for the place where a patient has to pay his or her bill. He cannot find such a check-out counter. Then–a-ha!–he finds a cashier. But–here comes the punch line–this is where the hospital hands out cash to patients who need a few pounds to cover the cost of their transportation home. Yes, in a British hospital you can leave with more money than you came in with.
What about those put-upon doctors who must work under the heavy yoke of Britain’s National Health Service? He interviews a young doctor who drives a new Audi and lives in a posh million-dollar flat. The British system, the doc says, is fine for doctors–unless you want to live in a $3 million flat and own three or four cars. As for drugs, every prescription in England costs the equivalent of ten bucks–no matter what drug or how much of it. An American who blew out his shoulder trying to walk across the famous intersection at Abbey Road on his hands tells Moore that he obtained great hospital care for no money.
Ditto Canada. Ditto France. Doing his I-can’t-believe-it act, Moore grills Americans and locals in each country who relate stories of receiving quality care for no payments. A Canadian doctor, with a straight face, says that he has “never told anyone we couldn’t put a finger back on” because of a patient’s inability to pay. In the land of surrender-monkeys, Moore discovers that government-paid doctors–Sacre bleu!–make house calls, and new parents are visited by federally-paid daycare providers. And get this: a fellow who completes chemo in France gets three months of paid leave to recuperate (on a beach in the south of France, no less). No wonder, the United States ranks 37th in the world when it comes to the health of its citizens, just edging out Slovenia.
Moore whacks the U.S. political system for catering to the needs of the insurance industry not the citizenry, pointing out that the health care lobby pumps millions of dollars into the campaigns of lawmakers. He notes that Senator Hillary Clinton, once the scourge of the health care industry, has become a top recipient of contributions from health care firms. (Movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, executive producer of the film and a friend of Hillary Clinton, pressed Moore to cut that part of the film. Moore turned him down. In a recent interview, Weinstein conceded he had asked Moore to delete this portion.)
In the film’s climax, Moore gets on a boat in Miami with three 9/11 rescue workers who have been unable to obtain the necessary treatment for ailments apparently caused by their exposure to debris at Ground Zero. His mission: bring them and other health care industry victims to the Guatanamo detention facility in Cuba, where (according to the Bush administration and Republican congressional leaders) the detainees typically receive fine medical treatment. Gitmo, Moore cracks, is “the only place on American soil with free universal health care.”
Moore’s small flotilla approaches the camp. He takes out a bullhorn and shouts, I have three 9/11 rescue workers who need medical attention. He adds, They just want the kind of treatment al Qaeda is getting. No one in the guard tower responds. A siren goes off. Maybe we better leave, he says. Moore takes the rescue workers and the others to the Havana Hospital where they receive–as do all Cubans there–free quality treatment.
Sure, it’s a stunt–but a telling one. One of the rescue workers is living on a monthly disability payment of $1000. Her inhaler costs $120, and she needs at least two a month. She breaks down and cries when she learns she can purchase the same drug in Cuba for five cents. Were she a suspected terrorist in Gitmo, she would get the device for free.
Moore’s right. The health care system in the United States is a bad deal for many Americans. (Don’t get me started about Oxford, which routinely denies almost every claim I submit for my family.) He glosses over some of the problems overseas (the French social welfare system is under much pressure), but he debunks the hyperbolic scare-’em criticisms hurled at the Canadian and British systems by free-marketeers who defend the U.S. system. As for the charge that a universal health care system would be “socialized medicine,” Moore rightfully counters that in the United States there’s socialism when it comes to the public well-being; there are public schools, public fire departments, and public libraries. What about public health?
In the film, Canadians, Brits and French laugh at Americans for their cockamamie health care system. Explaining their own systems, they all say that it’s a matter of communal security: we take care of each other. In other words, leave no citizen behind. Moore does not explicitly call for a particular set of reforms. But he clearly wants a taxpayer-funded system that cuts out the insurance companies and provides universal care to all.
Health care policy can be mind-numbingly complicated. Try to sort out the differences between Senator Barack Obama’s health care plan and Senator John Edwards’ proposal. And remember the wire chart the GOP cooked up for Hillary Clinton’s proposed reform? But Moore, to his credit, cuts through the surface-level details and gets to the essentials. Why not health care for all? Why allow corporate profit-mongers to decide whether an 18-month-old girl lives or dies? Why is the population of the United States, as wealthy as this nation is, not as healthy as the population of Britain, France, Canada, and 33 other countries? Why settle for a sick system?
Advocates of universal health care (note I say care, not coverage) are hoping SiCKO leads to political change. The California Nurses Association, which supports a single-payer system, is organizing across the country in conjunction with the movie’s appearance. It’s hard to see a film moving a nation–and, in particular, the politicians who pocket all those health care industry dollars. But Moore has produced a work that maximizes his talents as social critic, humorist, filmmaker, journalist, and advocate. SiCKO is brilliantly funny and sad. It’s a dead-on diagnosis. Don’t get sick before seeing this film.
David Corn is a well-known columnist with The Nation magazine.
Dateline: The Nation Magazine 06/24/2007
Howard Kurtz–An Unreliable Source?
Katrina vanden Heuvel
Here’s a segment for next week’s CNN show “Reliable Sources.” Why is it that the mainstream media treats single-payer healthcare (Medicare for all) as a fringe idea –when, in fact, it has broad support?
In a Sunday-morning segment–devoted to dissecting media treatment of Michael Moore and his new film Sicko, Howard Kurtz asserted that Moore is “pushing government-run healthcare which no Presidential candidate supports.”
Last I checked, Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), and a candidate for the Presidency, not only supports a single-payer, Medicare for all, not-for-profit healthcare system but he co-sponsored HR 676, The US National Health Insurance Act, along with Congressman John Conyers and more than 74 other House members. It’s a detailed bill, which was reintroduced in the latest session on Congress.
As Kucinich said in a recent Presidential forum, ” It’s time we ended this thought that healthcare is a privilege. It’s a basic right, and it’s time to end this control that insurance companies have not only over healthcare but over our political system.” If “Reliable Sources” wants to remain reliable, shouldn’t it issue a correction? Maybe devote a segment to media coverage of single-payer healthcare?
After all, if CNN can devote an hour this Wednesday evening to Larry King’s interview with Paris Hilton, shouldn’t it be able to give over a few minutes to coverage of single-payer healthcare? After all, according to a March New York Times poll, nearly two-thirds of Americans believe government should guarantee healthcare to every American, especially children, and a majority are willing to pay higher taxes to get this done.
Beautiful Katrina vanden Heuvel is The Nation’s Editor in Chief
Dateline: The Nation Magazine 06/24/2007
“Sicko” Campaign Asks: Who Will Fix U.S. Health Care System?
Former newspaper and magazine editor Michael Moore’s “Sicko” is a staggeringly powerful piece of journalism — yes, journalism, in the truest sense of what the craft can and should do. What makes the documentary on the nightmarish failure of the American health care system such effective journalism is Moore’s determination not merely to meticulously illustrate what is wrong with the system — something that has been done a thousand times by a thousand media outlets, if never quite so entertainingly — but also his certainty that there is a solution.
Like Tom Paine or Upton Sinclair, Moore is not satisfied to simply recount the crisis. He seeks to address it.
Moore’s advocacy on behalf of a single-payer health care system, which he accomplishes by showing Americans what works in other countries and how, is the ingredient that makes “Sicko” essential media.
It is also what makes this film the most important political statement so far in what remains an ill-defined domestic policy debate among Democrats who propose to replace Bushism with something better. When Moore went to Capitol Hill last week to make clear his position in the health care debate, he gave the definition that was needed: drawing a “which-side-are-you-on” line for presidential candidates and party leaders to arrange themselves around.
Of course every serious candidate for president will offer a plan for reforming the nation’s health care system. Even the Republicans who evidence an incomprehensible commitment to complete the mission of their party’s least likely leader since Warren Harding find themselves forced to offer a reform agenda. To do otherwise would be too great a denial of reality even for the most neo of conservatives.
But Moore knows there is no need to go to the trouble of penning new policy statements. The plan that addresses the crisis his film so ardently, and so amusingly, confirms is already on paper. It has been introduced in the House and has attracted 74 cosponsors.
The measure is H.R. 676, the United States National Health Insurance Act, sponsored by Congressman John Conyers, D-Michigan. And among the cosponsors is Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, a candidate for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination who Moore singled out for specific praise when the filmmaker formally endorsed the bill this week.
“Thank you Dennis Kucinich for running for president and at each of the debates… bringing up this very important issue and requesting that our fellow Democrats state their specific positions [on] how we’re going to bring health care to all Americans and remove the profit incentive from health care. It has to be removed,” said Moore, who turned to the congressman and added, “Thank you for saying that again and again.”
Moore’s not making any endorsements. But he is telling audiences in the key first primary state of New Hampshire — most recently at a packed town hall meeting in Manchester that was organized by the California Nurses Association and the National Nurses Organizing Committee — that Kucinich “is 100 percent on board” for real reform.
The hundreds of likely primary voters who attended the New Hampshire meeting, which was moderated by CNA executive director Rose Ann DeMoro, heard the filmmaker answering questions along with representatives of Physicians for a National Health Program and the Massachusetts Nurses Association.
Moore pulled no political punches. He explained why the proposed reforms of leading candidates — including John Edwards and Barack Obama — won’t work. And he bluntly suggested that the flaws in at least some of the plans proposed by Democratic presidential contenders could have something to do with the fact that, according to a new CNA study, those candidates have raised more than $3 million so far this year from individuals and political action committees associated with the for-profit corporations of the health care industry.
Moore wants candidates to sign a pledge to support free, universal health care “as a human right for every resident of the United States,” and to work to remove private insurance companies from providing health care. The pledge also calls for stricter regulation of pharmaceutical companies. And it asks candidates not to take any money from the health-care industry — or, if they have taken such money, to give it back.
Kucinich can sign that pledge. What about the other Democrats who would be president?
John Nichols is a well-known columnist for The Nation magazine and other leading media, and an articulate proponent of impeachment measures against the Bush regime for crimes against humanity, corruption, assaults on the Constitution, and gross mishandling of public policy.
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