Michael Moore’s Sicko: Review

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I’m sure Michael Moore needs no introduction to most of my audience: many of us have been painfully aware of his clumsy attacks on the Bush administration since about 2000. I saw Fahrenheit 9/11 almost as soon as it opened in London, and was disappointed to see a list of factual errors in the film, which ruined its impact for me (from a conservative source, but the list is well-referenced). Another criticism of his stance, from an Afro-American Muslim woman on a Yahoo list I used to read, was that he was concerned with “disarming minorities” and that anyone of a minority who consented to being disarmed was a fool. This film, however, is about a rather less controversial topic - American medicine, and the stranglehold he claims the insurance industry have on it.

He begins by giving examples of families whose circumstances changed rapidly because of their insurance situation, in one case from having a good house and being able to put their children through college to living in their daughter’s basement, as a result of medical crises; of a man who had to choose which finger to have reattached (for some reason, the middle finger cost five times as much as his ring finger). Then there were people whose insurance would not pay for treatment they badly needed, or would pay for only half of it (until he mentioned to them that Michael Moore was preparing a film about the health insurance industry), and the woman whose insurer stopped her treatment because it found out about a common yeast infection she’d had cleared up years ago. He showed part of a long list of conditions which would debar someone from getting insurance.

The roots of the system, he explains, lie in past propaganda efforts which depicted any move towards state-funded medicine as a plot to bring about communist rule in America; these efforts came from the American Medical Association and featured none other than the B-movie actor, Ronald Reagan. Before long, it alleged, doctors could be told where to go by the state, because a given town already had a doctor, or enough doctors. To prove the point about state-funded medicine, he visited Canada, the UK, France and, of course, Cuba.

I have never lived in France (only visited it a few times in transit and on holiday) but his depiction of the French health and social security system makes it look ridiculously lavish. They even showed a state-paid home help, laundering the clothes for “la maman” who was out working. One family, which had a net income of $8,000 (after what must have been considerable taxes), lived in a very well-appointed house and explained, in a mixture of French and broken English, about the holidays they’d taken to, among other places, the Dominican Republic and Kenya.

I’m rather more familiar, of course, with the National Health Service here in the UK, and his take on that institution started off with the story of the American whose ambition it was to cartwheel across the famous Abbey Road in London. He injured his neck in the effort, however, and received free treatment on the NHS. Moore talked to various people inside a state hospital, including a woman who’d not long given birth, asking them what they expected to have to pay for their treatment, feigning astonishment that they got it all for free. He finishes off by visiting the “cashier”, since that must be the place where the patients had to pay something, right? No, it seemed that some of them were actually being paid for things. And to test whether a doctor’s lot was really as Ronnie Reagan said it would be, he interviewed a doctor who told us he earned money in the upper five figures, drove an Audi, and had a £500,000 house (yes, that’s more than a million bucks) in Greenwich. (That figure has much to do with London’s inflated property market and may well not be what he paid for it; very ordinary houses in desirable neighbourhoods - and desirable does not necessarily mean prestigious - now sell for not much below that.)

Moore does not discuss any of the problems associated with the NHS - no mention of MRSA (multi-resistant staphylococcus aureus) or other hospital-acquired “superbugs” bred by years of overuse of antibiotics. He does not mention the notorious hygiene issue either, or the complaints of lackadaisical nursing. Admittedly, however, many of these problems may derive from recent governments’ obsession with subcontracting everything, such as cleaning and catering, rather than running it in-house in the dogmatic belief that the private sector does things better. He interviews Tony Benn, who made the laughable claim that democracy is so much more radical than socialism; one might ask why it delivers such markedly different results in the USA and the UK. Another point made, namely that no party would seriously suggest getting rid of it and replacing it with an insurance-based system like the USA’s, is also valid; the claim that the NHS is funded out of National Insurance is inaccurate. It is funded out of general taxation; NI is mostly used to fund state pensions.

Doubtless, some will find nauseating the sight of Moore taking his American guests to hospital in Havana, having been refused entry to Guantánamo Bay (so that they, among them people who had helped out at Ground Zero after the 9/11 attacks and had suffered respiratory ailments as a result, could enjoy the supposedly fine healthcare the US military were lavishing on enemy combatants). Needless to say, Moore has nothing to say about political repression in Cuba, any more than he does about the social problems in France that accompany its lavish social security system. Moore tells us he asked the hospital to give them what the average Cuban gets - no more and no less - but whether they did in another matter. Of course, it will remind some of the scenes in Fahrenheit 9/11 where people were seen enjoying a wedding before the Americans arrived to spoil the party; I never thought this was as egregious as some made out, since the fact has been that the invasion has replaced order, if an oppressive one, with chaos.

Sicko is definitely an improvement on Fahrenheit 9/11, and its message is certainly more valid than pretty much anything else Moore has delivered this century, being a convincing indictment of the profit-driven health industry which has a vested interest in making sure people do not get treatment. The film is considerably less confrontational and involves much less grandstanding, and some of the music and old footage reminds one of the British documentary series by Adam Curtis, The Power of Nightmares. Whether it will push Americans to demand a state health-care system anything like those we enjoy in Europe remains to be seen, but it’s certainly a reminder to those who enjoy one already how fortunate they are.

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