Issue June 26, 2007

Film review – Sicko

Michael Moore’s latest makes the point once again: We are living in the Golden Age of documentaries. This time, he affords us a disturbing look into the diseased guts of the American medical system.

Plenty of Americans — perhaps a majority — blindly believe we have the best medical system in the world. In fact, we are near the very bottom of the list (No. 37), according to the World Health Organization. The fallacy of American medical primacy is one whose debunking takes up a good deal of Moore’s film. Toward that end, Moore takes a truly circumspect approach: He (partially) circles the globe to look at the healthcare apparatus employed by other countries, namely Canada, Cuba, Britain and France. It is an evenhanded approach that perhaps slightly exaggerates the effectiveness of those systems; nevertheless, it is hard to dispute the superiority of all of them (with the possible exception of Cuba’s). If we’re going to import all of our luxury goods and cars from countries that make a better product, why not import their healthcare systems as well?

In France (No. 1 on the WHO rankings), we are shown a truly amazing hospital efficiently at work. Every resident of France, citizen or not, has access to free healthcare. The approach is more caring and individually focused than what is usually seen in the average assembly-line-like American hospital. Britain and Canada also provide better coverage for their citizens, although some complain about long waiting periods. Still, they don’t have to pay what we pay, and the medicines are far cheaper.

The other major chunk of the film is made up of horror stories, some so blackly humorless that they will leave viewers in stitches. Firsthand accounts of malfeasance and outright fraud committed by insurance companies and managed care corporations (HMOs and PPOs) abound. The interesting point Moore makes is that even people who have health insurance (which excludes 47 million of us) still are often left without care because legitimate claims are often denied. It is when this topic moves to center stage that Moore introduces Louisville-based physician Dr. Linda Peeno, the ramrod straight whistleblower who learned about all the nastiness in the business while working at Humana. Her testimony before Congress, wherein she admits to denying care to patients based on quotas from her bosses — and having patients die — causes her to choke up. The gruesome “fit parade” reaches its nadir when we see a woman taken from her hospital room and dumped on the street in front of an L.A. homeless shelter. It’s a matter-of-fact depiction of stunning disdain, disrespect and disregard for human life. It would not have happened in Canada.

Moore’s Cuban stunt ties the film together thematically. The director obtains a boat and ferries a handful of 9/11 rescue workers to Cuba to seek medical help for their WTC-related injuries. They know that Guantanamo has its own medical facilities. “All we want,” shouts Moore through a bullhorn as the boat bobs in the Caribbean, “is the same kind of treatment you guys give to the Al Qaeda prisoners.” Turned away, they dock at Havana to shop for cheap medicine.

Moore’s critics are legion. He makes Republicans seethe rather in the same manner that Ann Coulter pisses off Democrats. They say he distorts facts to fit a pre-existing agenda and that when confronted with contradictory facts, he punts and reverts to comedy. They resent his guerilla interview tactics (which are a bit more muted here than usual). Mostly they just resent his success. “How can all these liberal documentaries actually be box office hits?” they grumble over their single-malt scotches. “What is wrong with this country?”