Monday, July 09, 2007


If you can find money to kill people, you can find money to help people

By Edward Copeland
The title of this post comes from Tony Benn, a longtime member of Britain's Labour Party, who discusses the history of his country's National Health Service with Michael Moore in Moore's new documentary about the U.S. health care system, Sicko, which not only proves to be Moore's most solid work since Roger & Me but may be his best documentary ever.

Of course, any Moore film isn't a documentary in the strictest definition of the word: Moore's a propagandist and provocateur but, in most cases, he's also right and Sicko may be his most dead-on film in that regard, refusing to point the finger of easy blame at one party or the other and, more importantly, focusing like a laser on the subject at hand.

Even though I liked Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, both films suffered from tangents that seemed to have little to do with the subjects at hand. There are no such distractions in Sicko: Moore simply looks at the failures of health care in the United States and compares it to what other countries provide.

He doesn't offer easy answers, because there aren't any. His film just asks a simple question: How did the richest and arguably greatest country in the world get to this point. Sicko doesn't really focus on the 50 million Americans who don't have health insurance but on those who are covered and still can't get by.

According to Moore, 18,000 Americans die a year because of a lack of health insurance, but having insurance doesn't guarantee higher mortality either. When he began this film, he put up a notice on his Web site asking for people to send him their health care horror stories and by the end of the first week, he'd received more than 25,000 responses.

The tales he shares are outrageous and heartbreaking, from a mother with an ailing daughter whom an ambulance took to the nearest hospital but whose insurer insisted go to one of their hospitals, ending up costing the infant her life.

There's the 79-year-old man who has to keep working at a grocery store to pay for his medications. "If there are any golden years, I can't find them," the man laments.

Still, Sicko is far from a grim experience. It contains a lot of laughs as you'd expect from Moore, who also keeps himself off screen until well into the film.

It isn't just the wronged who share tales of woe: He also talks to people who have worked for insurance companies and feel guilt over their marching orders to choose profits over helping people. One woman, Dr. Linda Peeno, is shown testifying to Congress about how she knows that her decisions to deny coverage for Humana led to deaths but instead of punishment, she was rewarded with more money and promotions for saving the company $500,000.

The most illuminating passages concern how other countries such as Canada, Britain and France treat their citizens and it's amazing. In contrast to the insurance companies that reward workers for saving them money, Britain gives bonuses to doctors who get patients healthier, i.e. getting them to quit smoking, lower cholesterol, etc.

One funny moment is when a French couple tells of their greatest expenses: housing, fish and vegetables and holidays. When your government guarantees you a minimum of five weeks paid vacation a year, having to budget for that much leisure time is a problem I'd love to have.

The sequence that has received the most publicity is Moore's stunt of taking volunteer 9/11 workers to Guantanamo Bay when he learns that enemy combatants and al-Qaida get better and free health coverage than these heroes because the government decided that since the volunteers were there on their own, they didn't qualify for coverage. Of course, he doesn't get into Gitmo.

Instead, he takes them to Cuba and that may be the weak point of the film, painting a much rosier picture of health care there than is really the case. (A statistic shown early in the film that ranks the U.S. 37th, just ahead of Slovenia, in terms of quality health care also clearly shows that Cuba ranks below Slovenia.)

Still, stunt or not, the Cuban episode still proves touching when Cuban firefighters pay tribute to the 9/11 workers. Even if it's a stunt, it still breaks your heart to recall how the world was behind us after 9/11 and how this administration squandered all that goodwill. Moore asks pointedly at the end, "Why can't we adopt better ways?" reminding us that we all sink or swim together.

Many of the most salient points are made by Benn, the Labour Party stalwart, reminding us that the government should fear the people, not the other way around. "Keeping people hopeless and pessimistic — see I think there are two ways in which people are controlled — first of all frighten people and secondly demoralize them." Benn tells Moore. "An educated, healthy and confident nation is harder to govern."

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Tony Benn's comment summed it up for me too. I felt sick to my stomach after watching what we've become. It's a very powerful doc. Question is, is it powerful enough to get people to put down the chicken wings, get off the couch and actually do something about it? Or are even our best efforts futile? When you see what these people went through you see the machinations of a system in place designed solely to defeat every action we take to better our lives. That is true evil. No system is perfect and I’m sure Canadians and Europeans have issues with their system but this is abhorrent. It's what I find absolutely offensive about this country. The film raises serious questions not only about our health care system but how we as people treat each other. Cash is king.
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