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Exposing a sick health care system

July 6, 2007 | Page 4

Sicko, a documentary by Michael Moore.

HELEN REDMOND reviews the film that has provoked so much debate about the health care system.

THE CAPITALIST system kills. That's the message of Michael Moore's inspired and heartbreaking new documentary, Sicko, about the American health care system.

The system kills people by denying them access to health care (18,000 deaths a year according to a study by the Institute of Medicine)--and it kills people's hopes and dreams of living their life without disability, debt and dependence.

Importantly, the film demolishes the myths associated with what is called "socialized medicine." Moore explains how numerous services in American society are socialized and not for profit, but people don't think about it--the fire and police departments, public education, water and libraries.

Sicko has a dual purpose--it showcases the health care horror stories of working-class people with insurance, and then goes abroad to England, France and Cuba to investigate how a single-payer system works. The film asks: Why don't we have that kind of system here?

Larry and Donna have life-threatening diseases, and because of inadequate coverage, they lose their home and are forced to move into a room in their daughter's house. An elderly man has to continue to work in order to pay for his medicine--he says there will be no "golden years."

Another man has the tips of two fingers sliced off by a saw and has to decide which one to reattach. The ring finger costs $12,000, the middle finger $60,000. A widow tells how her husband was denied a potentially lifesaving bone-marrow transplant.

Denial of medical services is the raison d'être of the insurance industry--the source of its profits. In an interview, Dr. Linda Peeno, a former medical reviewer at Humana-turned-whistleblower, reveals, "I denied a man a necessary operation that would have saved his life, and thus caused his death. In fact, what I did saved the company half a million dollars."

Insurance industry workers are interviewed and provide a rarely seen insiders' view of how medical coverage is denied--and the toll it takes on their mental health. Then, there's Richard Nixon caught on tape saying he would endorse the creation of HMOs, because "the less they give 'em, the more they make."

Moore briefly chronicles Hillary Clinton's attempt to reform health care in the early 1990s. He wrongly portrays her as fighting for universal health care, when in fact her plan was nothing of the sort. She never proposed ending the role of the private insurance industry--the source of the crisis.

But Moore redeems himself when he reports that Sen. Hillary Clinton accepts large campaign contributions from the insurance industry. Moore said Sicko distributor Harvey Weinstein, a longtime supporter of both Clintons, asked him to cut the footage. He refused.

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IN BRITAIN, Moore interviews Labour Party member Tony Benn about the National Health Service, which he explains was created after the Second World War. Benn asks, "If you can have full employment by killing Germans, why not have full employment by building hospitals?" This brought a round of applause from the audience I was in.

In France, we get a glimpse of one of the most advanced welfare states--with quality, inexpensive child care, five weeks of annual vacation time, paid medical leaves and a health care system where doctors make house calls.

Moore interviews a group of Americans living in France, and one woman sums up a crucial idea: "In France, the government is afraid of the people; in the U.S., the people are afraid of the government." The film then cuts to massive street protests called to safeguard benefits for workers.

The film follows a group of 9/11 rescue workers to Cuba to get the health care they can't get in the U.S. One of the most powerful moments is when one goes to a pharmacy to purchase an inhaler she needs to help her breath--it costs less than a dollar. In America, the price is over $100. She stands outside the store and cries.

Moore makes a serious misstep when he takes the 9/11 rescue workers by boat to Guantánamo Bay and pits them against the prisoners the U.S. holds there--asserting that the prisoners receive top-notch medical care.

In reality, Guantánamo is a concentration camp where prisoners are tortured, psychologically abused, kept in exposed "cages" and subjected to brutal force feedings by medical personnel when they have gone on hunger strikes. The sick twist is that prisoners receive medical attention to keep them alive--in order to continue the torture. This part of the film should have been left on the cutting room floor.

Another weakness of the film is that Moore doesn't interview nurses. They have been leaders in the fight against for-profit health care--as their presence alongside Moore at a string of premieres across the country made clear.

Sicko has come under attack from all quarters. Critics have called it "rancid," "a screed" and "one-sided." But the criticism and controversy are welcome because it has--finally--opened up a national dialogue and launched a movement for single-payer health care.

Moore said that the promotional tour in conjunction with nurses' unions is "being run like a war. We're in a battle with these corporations who want to maintain their position. They don't want to give an inch on this, and we are out to upset the applecart."

He's right. It is a war, and our side will have to fight like hell to get rid of the insurance industry--some of the most parasitic, profitable and powerful corporations.

Sicko will go down in cinematic history for brilliantly exposing the barbarism of the U.S. health care system--and, hopefully, for spurring a new movement that fights for a system where patients come before profits.

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