I live in a Western society without universal health coverage, the only Western society without, actually. Living in a consumer-driven society has its plusses and minuses, as any system will, but as political lightning rod Michael Moore’s new film Sicko indicates, perhaps under that system the Hippocratic oath may need to be changed from “do no harm” to “do no harm to the bottom line.” Sicko is different from Moore’s familiar political screeds; no, this is a deeply humanistic Moore who presents a scathing expose on the broken American healthcare system under the control of major corporations. This doesn’t taste like propaganda, not this time.
The film is really structured into three segments: health care horror stories, a comparison of other countries and their systems, and the jaunt with 9/11 rescue workers. The horror stories are the best condemnation of our system and also the film’s best point of argument for change. The additional segments provide more persuasive food for thought but are less explosive. Moore’s best points are his damnation of our home healthcare. I imagine the film is full of selective information and some bias, but the true stories of these people wronged by a system meant to protect are all the information needed to point to change.
The first part quickly alerts the audience that, unlike the advertisement declaring that this is the funniest of Moore’s films, Sicko really is by far the saddest and most emotionally disheartening film the scruffy man with a camera has ever concocted. Endless full-length movies could be fashioned simply from the personal stories of those with insurance, and especially those without insurance, and how their lives have been ruined or devastated by the decision making of the American health care system. Sure, this segment is a blatant emotional appeal, but that doesn’t excuse what happened to these victims. One man accidentally sliced off two of his fingers and then had to choose which one he could afford to reattach. By far the most infuriating cases are the clear-cut examples where medical intervention would have saved lives. A mother lost her young daughter because she made the mistake of seeking help from a non-HMO approved hospital. She died in the wait to transfer her to another hospital while the mother begged the onsite doctors to treat her child. One woman even worked for a healthcare company and had her husband’s bone marrow transplant because they deemed this long-standing and highly successful surgery as “experimental.” Her husband had a perfect match thanks to his brother. He died a month later. Hearing these people’s sobering sob stories, one after the other, is like repeatedly getting punched in the stomach. It’s hard not to tear up as you witness peoples loved ones being transformed into profit loss statistics.
Moore also gets some plum interviews with former workers within the healthcare industry, and we see that the burdens of their actions still haunt them. One woman breaks down as she confesses a conversation she had over the phone with a couple applying for coverage. The couple was so overjoyed and relieved, but this woman new immediately that they would get denied, and that this moment of happiness would be utterly destroyed weeks later when that fateful letter was delivered in the mail. It’s explained by these people that the real mission of the big insurance companies is to find a way not to pay, thus achieving the exact opposite of what insurance is supposed to be. If by some miracle you do have insurance, they do approve your operation, and you have not incorrectly filled out your application, that’s when they set in the heavy hitters. These people scour through any record they can find to discover any means of denying converge. One woman had her surgery paid for by her insurance agency, then the agency found out that she had misled them by never reporting a serious medical condition in her patient history — she had a yeast infection. They then canceled payment and told the doctors to get their money from her instead. No stone shall go unturned in the pursuit of skipping out on the bill.
This segment also presents some of the most indicting information as well as some of the weirdest. A healthcare professional testifies to Congress that she received higher placement by denying coverage to people who presumably died without it. Bonuses are awarded to the agent with the most denials. Congress passed a Medicare reform that effectively handed the government system over to private interests, allowing drug companies and insurance agencies to become middlemen and drive up prices and cut out competition. The Senator at the helm of this reform became the CEO of a pharmaceutical company with a starting salary at $2 million. Coincidence? The strangest item is a record the American Medical Association distributed decades ago that stirred up fears of how socialized medicine would weaken our country and grease the wheels for a takeover by those dirty, spooky communists waiting in the wings. None other than eventual American president Ronald Reagan narrated the record.
Sicko then becomes an extended commercial for foreign healthcare programs. Moore visits Canada, England, France, and finally Cuba to see how other countries take care of their own. Throughout the film we’re warned by those in power how disastrous a universal healthcare program would be and how people would not be getting better care. Moore stumbles through every country and interviews doctors and patients in waiting rooms, all of who speak enthusiastically about a program where anyone can walk anywhere and get covered for free or at minimal cost. In France, there are roving doctors that take emergency house calls 24 hours a day, and this system was inspired by a man who reasoned if he could get a plumber 24-7, why not a doctor? A clog is a clog. Every one of these countries has a lower infant mortality rate as well as a higher life expectancy. This segment is informative and dispels misconceptions about foreign care, but it’s also hardly open and shut. The economic realities aren’t fully explored by a handful of glowing interviews where the subjects are sympathetic to Moore’s viewpoints. What is the cost of living in these countries with so much paid sick leave? What is the average salary like? How much are taxes to pay for universal coverage? What is the wait like for serious but not life-threatening operations? I am by no means saying that these other countries do not have favorable systems, but Moore is not covering the costs of those government-controlled healthcare systems.
The final segment is typical of the stunts in other Moore movies. He interviews a collection of 9/11 rescue workers that volunteered to clear rubble for weeks and months and now have serious health problems from time spent at Ground Zero. Because they were not government employees, the government rejects paying for their medical care. These people were selfless when their nation needed them most, and now the fact that our own government has turned its back on returning the favor is deeply shameful. Moore takes these 9/11 workers and others and travels by boat to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, where those responsible for 9/11 are getting better healthcare. The rescue workers are brought to tears at the discrepancies between the Cuban health system and the American counterpart they’ve been butting heads with for years. Moore paints an all-too rosy picture for Cuba, a country of notorious political repression, censorship, and the internment of homosexuals. These points are conveniently left out while Moore marvels at the advanced care his charges receive for free.
Sicko is a powerful and searing condemnation of what Americans live with to live. Moore always seems to formulate a conspiracy-laden thesis through his documentaries, but this is one I can definitely get behind. Moore theorizes that Americans are kept demoralized and in fear so that they will be kept complacent. Saddled with mounting debt, you’re not going to rock the boat when you have to keep your job as the only means of affording medical care. The U.S. industry seems to working backwards; instead of protecting people they are protecting shareholders. When people starting dissolving and all that can be seen is profit ledgers, that’s when we’ve gone too far and twisted a system meant to heal people and prolong their lives and not empty their wallets. Moore doesn’t present a strong alternative but presents overwhelming evidence that change is in dire need. Sicko is skillfully presented, has some humor to it, but is by far a more draining and agitating experience than a fun one, ultimately scaring the viewer to ever fill out an insurance application again. Ever have a yeast infection?
Nate’s Grade: B+