When I went to see Michael Moore’s new documentary, Sicko, I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. The Academy Award winning director of Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 is not known for making films with a balanced perspective: he is often described as polemical, polarizing, and—by those on the receiving end of his criticisms—biased.
Although Sicko, which lambastes the United States health care system, could be called all of these things, it does raise some issues that few Americans will dispute. Health care in our country is generally considered too expensive (a recent poll by USA Today found that 79 percent of people queried were dissatisfied with health care costs) and health care reform is on most presidential candidate agendas. The controversy surrounding his movie, then, is not in the problem, it is in the solution.
The movie opens with the gruesome image of a man sewing up his own knee, and the disheartening account of an uninsured man who, after cutting off the tops of two fingers with a table saw, has to choose between saving the ring finger for $12,000 or the middle finger for $60,000 (he picks the ring). The movie, however, is not about the forty-four million uninsured Americans. The movie is about those of us who are insured, but still have a hefty price to pay—one that often puts our health in jeopardy.
One of those people is a seventy-nine year old sprightly man who, despite his age, continues to do janitorial work at a grocery chain in order to keep his and his wife’s health care benefits. He quips, “If there are golden years, I can’t find them,” while cleaning out toilets, hauling trash, and wiping up spills in the freezer section.
But his plight seems almost justified in contrast to Moore’s other exemplars of an unfair insurance system. A young woman is denied coverage of an ambulance ride after being in a car accident, her insurance company stating she should have obtained prior authorization. A twenty-two year-old woman is diagnosed with cervical cancer, but her company won’t pay for treatment; they claim she is too young to get cancer. A man whose young daughter is born with a hearing defect fights the insurance company who denied one cochlear ear implant but not the other, claiming it was experimental. He is baffled as to why one implant is standard medicine but another is not. He eventually gets both, only after alerting his insurance company that Michael Moore was including him in his film.
These might be isolated instances, but Moore assures us they are not by interviewing people within the health care industry. The intent of health insurance and pharmaceutical companies, they tell us, is to maximize profits. However, maximizing profits means denying sick people coverage, rebuking claims, and searching for examples of pre-existing conditions so they can throw out current bills. According to one insurance investigator, “You’re not slipping through the cracks; someone made that crack and is sweeping you towards it.”
Moore then travels abroad to juxtapose our current system with those countries with government-provided health insurance, also known as single-payer or socialized medicine. He shows Canadians who pay nothing at the doctor’s office, and wait less time than you would to see a doctor here in the States. He hunts down a cashier’s office in a hospital in the UK, determined to find out where people pay their bills. But in the UK, no one pays for their care; the cashier’s office is there to reimburse patients for parking and travel expenses. “This isn’t the U.S.,” laughs one beaming couple after delivering a bill-free baby.
Perhaps the hardest thing to stomach was realizing that other countries have it better in many ways, not just health care. In France, they have at least five weeks paid vacation, unlimited sick days, six months of paid maternity leave, free childcare, and sometimes, government-funded employees to help clean, cook, and do the laundry for new mothers.
It was here that I wished Moore had painted a more balanced picture because surely everything in Europe and Canada cannot be as hunky-dory as it seems (it most certainly is not in Cuba, where Moore takes three 9/11 volunteers to receive care that they could not afford in the U.S.). Although he successfully refutes the idea of having substandard medicine and long waiting times in countries with national health coverage, it is hard to get an accurate picture of how much they really pay in taxes, or if excellent care is uniform throughout their countries. Had we of seen some of the more realistic aspects, I think it would have been a more convincing argument as to why we should want publicly administered health care in our country (which we already do in a sense: Medicare and Medicaid). Instead, I was left feeling that the portrayal was a little too perfect to be completely true.
Still, it is hard to deny that the United States is not just failing in terms of health care; we seem to be failing to take care of people—physically, emotionally, and mentally. At the end the film, Moore asks, “Who are we?”
In other words, what kind of country lets greedy corporations bilk sick citizens out of millions of dollars and years of health? The reason the World Health Organization has rated us 37th out of its 191 countries (behind places like Columbia, Costa Rica, and parts of the Middle East) is not because we do not have the latest health care technology or innovation—we are the leaders in that. And although the bottom line for insurance and pharmaceutical companies has lead to exorbitant health care costs, it does not explain why we have the highest rate of infant mortality of any industrialized country. Societal factors—race inequality, stress, and poverty—are the root of these problems and have more to do with the ugly side of America than the ugly side of health care.
Our greater social ills cannot be solved by universal healthcare; it would only be treating a symptom of a larger problem. But perhaps, as Moore suggests, it is a start. Long lines and delayed treatment are things we associate with socialized medicine, but it doesn’t take farther than a trip to a public hospital’s emergency room to realize that our poor and disenfranchised already have that.