Why they're sick of Sicko

Michael Moore's Sicko, released in the US on June 22, has already become one of the five highest grossing documentaries of all time. Predictably, the film's withering attack on the US's profit-driven health-care system has elicited a strong response from apologists for neoliberalism. The following article on the reaction to Moore's film originally appeared as an editorial in the US Socialist Worker.

The drive to discredit, deflect and dodge Michael Moore's withering criticisms of the US health-care system is in high gear.

CNN aired a July 8 report by Dr Sanjay Gupta that purported to "fact check" the claims made in Moore's documentary Sicko. As it turns out, Gupta's report was riddled with factual errors — including a claim that Moore supposedly misreported Cuba's annual spending on health care as US$25 per person, when in fact the film did cite the correct figure of $251.

The CNN report also featured an interview with Paul Keckley, who tried to attack Moore for suggesting that government-run health care in other countries is "free", instead of taxpayer-funded. When Moore called out Gupta for getting a quote from a health-care industry hack, Gupta replied that Keckley was affiliated with a university — but in Gupta's report, Keckley is identified as a Deloitte health-care analyst, and in fact has many industry ties.

Industry lobbyists and spokespeople have heaped barbs and slanders on Sicko. "Unfortunately, this is a Hollywood editorial", said Mohit Ghose, a spokesperson for America's Health Insurance Plans, an industry trade group. "It's not a documentary, and it should be seen as such."

But you can see how much the insurance executives fear Sicko by reading a memo written by Barclay Fitzpatrick, Capital BlueCross's vice-president of corporate communications, who was assigned to see the movie by his bosses. Unfortunately for him, Fitzpatrick's memo was leaked to Moore, who posted it on his website.

"You would have to be dead to be unaffected by Moore's movie", writes Fitzpatrick, referring to the heartbreaking stories of insurance industry callousness that led to an infant dying as she was transferred from an emergency room outside her insurance network to one that was in the network.

"As a viewer, you are made to feel ashamed to be an American, a capitalist, and part of a 'me' society instead of a 'we' society — and the lack of universal health care is held up in support of that condemnation", he concludes.

But it's not just industry hacks whose hackles have been raised by Moore's film. Politicians are squirming under the scrutiny that Moore deservedly directs at both mainstream parties.

Brian Golden, the New England regional director of the US Department of Health and Human Services, sounded defensive as he attempted to explain why US President George Bush planned to veto the expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which would cover 3.3 million more uninsured children.

"As Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt has stated, the administration will continue to resist a government takeover of the health-care market that has given the United States the world's best health care", said Golden.

World's best health care? According to reams of scientific surveys and statistical studies, "every available indicator says that in terms of quality, access to needed care and health outcomes, the US health care system does worse, not better, than other advanced countries — even Britain, which spends only about 40 percent as much per person as we do", wrote New York Times columnist Paul Krugman.

A single-payer health-care system — of the sort that HR 676, legislation sponsored by Democratic member of Congress John Conyers, would create — would deliver better care for less money by eliminating private insurance companies and all the bureaucracy, administrative costs, profits and other waste they bring with them.

Health insurance companies promote themselves as health-care providers — but in truth, they aren't in the business of making people healthy, but of making healthy profits.

All the candidates, but especially the Democrats, say that health-care reform is high on their agenda. But so is staying on the good side of the lobbyists who fund their campaigns and work the system in Washington.

"It is no surprise that virtually none of the candidates who receive this money advocate the elimination of private health insurance", says Michael Lighty, public policy director for the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee. "The avalanche of health care industry cash is corrupting public policy."

Sicko has amplified and focused the grievances that millions of US people have long held against the health-care system. But the political establishment isn't looking to overhaul the system, only tinker with the details.

"Plans which minimise the disruption to the existing system are more likely to succeed than plans that rip up the existing system and start over", said Jonathan Gruber, a veteran of Bill Clinton's administration and consultant on health-care issues for the campaigns of Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards, quoted in a July 10 Washington Post article. "That's not to say that plans ripping it up wouldn't be better—I just think they're political non-starters."

Political insiders like Gruber say that their proposals are more "realistic". But what's realistic about expecting a significant change from legislation that leaves the power of the profit-hungry health-care giants intact?

By contrast, Sicko has had an immense impact on the discussion of health care at the grassroots. At showings across the country, audience members gathered in the lobby to discuss the film before they left. And meetings held in the wake of the film are drawing together people to talk about solutions to the crisis — and how to take action to achieve them.

A real alternative won't be won overnight. But these are the essential first steps in building a movement that can push for change even when politicians seek to preserve the status quo.

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