James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Friday, July 06, 2007

Sicko: Commenting on commentaries

The reviews of Michael Moore's “Sicko” have been fascinating, the editorial and op-ed commentaries on the film even more so.

Apparently there is a rule in corporate journalism that every mention of Moore and his films, or Moore without his films, must contain at least two snide observations about his biases, his ever so naughty attacks on rich and powerful but somehow – in the eyes of the corporate journalists -- defenseless people such as the chairman of General Motors, and, if you can slide it in, Moore's physical appearance.

Four snide comments, two or three misrepresentations and an outright lie or two about Moore or the films is better, I gather.

(A quick digression: No, I don't know Moore, have never met him or corresponded with him.)

The “Sicko” reviews and commentary are running pretty much true to form, but, interestingly enough, after all the snideness is done, every writer I've come across has had to admit that it is a good film, and that, sonofagun, the United States health care “system” truly is a bloody awful mess, pretty much as Moore says.

Of course, I haven't read the comments in the insurance and pharmaceutical industries publications, though if I run across one I might. The level of unintentional humor should be high.

Speaking of humor: “Sicko” is full of laughs. They're mostly the kind that burst from you when confronted by a lie so outrageous and obvious that the absurdity is overwhelming, but they're real laughs. They get little or no mention in most of the reviews and op-ed pieces I've seen.

Moore knew we'd laugh at the obvious self-serving absurdities of the super rich guys, and I guess that's one of the ways his biases show in the eyes of the corporate press commentators. Perhaps they think he should have paraphrased their idiocies to make them look less foolish, rather than letting them speak for themselves.

A July 5 op-ed piece in the New York Times by Philip M. Boffey is quite representative of the 10 or 12 I've read, I think. He calls the new film “unashamedly one-sided, superficial, overstated and occasionally suspect in its details,” before admitting, in the same sentence, that on the “big picture” of the failure of our health care system “Mr. Moore is right.”

Boffey, who writes editorials on health care for the Times, does not elucidate on his claims that the case Moore builds against our health care “providers” is overstated or “suspect in its details.”

I'll give him this, however. “Sicko” is one sided. Moore doesn't spend any time defending our broken down health care system, which leaves 45 million Americans without health insurance, which is ranked 37th among nations in quality of care and which overcharges us – often to the point of bankruptcy – and makes deliberate decisions to deny health care to individuals and, as Moore clearly demonstrates, allows people to die needlessly for the sake of protecting overblown profits.

Oops. Was that one-sided, too?

As someone who spent about 45 years in newsrooms, I very strongly suspect Boffey is somebody who is too close to some of his sources. But again I digress.

He says it is “hard to know how true” are the stories Moore puts on film -– stories such as that of a young woman who was retroactively denied health care insurance because of a minor yeast infection that was cured years before she applied for and got the insurance that was taken away when she needed it.

Well, I'll tell him. There is not the slightest reason to doubt any of the individual stories Moore has used in the film.

First, the director is too smart to use a phony story, and risk getting caught, when there are, as he says, countless such stories. When he put out a request on his Web site for personal stories of being screwed by health insurers, Moore was inundated. Within days, he had more than 20,000 such stories.

Second, I can recount four or five such tales from the years I was the primary caregiver for my aged mother, and another dozen from among my acquaintances. This moment, I am deeply concerned about a friend who is in despair because of the years-long battle he has had to wage with his health insurer in order to get care he must have to live, and the debt that has piled up as a result.

Anyone who hasn't experienced such a situation, or doesn't at least know someone who has had to fight for his or her life in such a way, must live in another country.

My favorite criticism of Moore, however, is one employed by at least half the commentaries I've read: That the director didn't give the insurance and pharmaceutical industries time in his film to tell their side of the story.

That, folks, is grandly absurd.

Moore is laying out facts. The industries that profit so hugely from our illnesses spend hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising, public relations and lobbying to “tell their side of the story.” One month's expenditure by the insurance industry for those activities substantially exceeds the cost of making “Sicko.” And Moore doesn't own a single member of Congress; they've bought dozens. (The insurance industry's almost $400,000 in contributions to Hillary Clinton's campaign purse alone would have covered a substantial portion of the cost of making the film.)

Let them tell their lies on their own dime.

Boffey, like almost all of the others whose “Sicko” commentaries I've read, also complains that Moore is to unfailingly kind to the health care systems of other countries. (The film has episodes shot in England, Canada, France, Italy and Cuba.)

What makes Boffey and one or two of the others most annoyed is that Moore doesn't mention “the months-long waits to see specialists in Canada and Britain...”

Well, actually, it does come up in the Canadian interviews, and the Canadians snort in disbelief when the claim is made, though they admit that there sometimes is a wait of a few weeks to see a specialist for an elective or entirely non-threatening treatment or condition.

And the critics fail to note that under our system of money-vacuuming HMOs and profit-building insurance companies, the waits to see specialists in this country often are every bit as long, and longer, than those the defenders of our system claim are the rule in other countries.

The very large network of clinics through which I get my health care and which has close ties to the HMO that provides my health coverage, has made a deliberate decision to limit the number of specialists of several types in its network in order to maximize its nonprofits. (Some specialties, such as cardiology are big revenue producers and so not tightly limited.) When I've complained about long waits to see a specialist, several people within the organization, including four doctors, have confirmed my suspicion on that issue.

Because of a couple of chronic conditions -– not life threatening, at least for now, though they have that potential –- I must occasionally see specialists in three different areas of medicine. The last two times I had such a need, it took three to four months from the time I placed the first call seeking an appointment until I actually got into the doc's offices. In another case, it was almost five months.

I am not alone in that, despite all the phony denials the HMOs and clinics might produce. Give me 24 hours and I assure you I can provide the names of at least 20 others who have had the same experience. (And it could be 100 others or more if I put the word out on the Net.)

All of the pieces I've read about “Sicko,” have what I find to be a glaring omission.

Not one mentions the comments by Tony Benn, a former member of Britain's Parliament. Yet Benn's statements probably are the most profound element of the film.

He notes, as other good people often do, that “if we have the money to kill (in war), we've got the money to help people.”

But, more importantly, Benn tells Moore, that all of Europe and many other places have good health care systems while the United States lacks such a basic service because in Europe and elsewhere, “the politicians are afraid of the people” when the people get angry and demand some action. In the United States, he observes, “the people are afraid of those in power” because they fear losing their jobs, fear being cut off from health care or other services if they speak up and make demands.

“How do you control people?” Benn asks, and he answers: “Through fear and debt.”

His point is that in the United States we have a great overabundance of both.

Having ignored Benn's succinct analysis, some of the writers, and especially Boffey, state as fact that Americans would reject out of hand any attempt to create a government-run universal health care system. They produce no facts to support the claim, so apparently they just “know” it.

If someone conducted a poll today, asking a section of Americans if they want “socialized medicine,” the results might seem to support the claim of Boffey and others.

But if the gutless Democrats went out and explained, clearly and often, how a government run single payer system actually works, and what it really costs, and what the people of Canada, France, Britain, Germany and other countries really think of their health care systems, the ignorance-rooted suspicion could be reversed in a matter of months. And I believe that is true even assuming the inevitable all-out ad and PR campaign by the insurance and pharmaceutical industries to protect their enormous profits.

(Does it occur to anyone that the profits they suck from our system, while we struggle for and often are refused decent health care, are truly enormous if the industries are willing and able to spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year to protect those profits?)

Every American I know is fed up with our present health care mess, and more and more are deeply angry.

Go see “Sicko.” It's a marvelous film, it's full of laughs and, yes, it will give an edge to your anger. Then do something useful with that anger. Members of Congress and state legislatures are just a phone call, a letter or an email away.

And don't be conned by the less-than-half measures proposed by the present gaggle of corporation-serving presidential candidates.