Sicko

by Tom Bartel

As I was watching the mid-June press screening of Michael Moore’s new movie Sicko, I could almost hear the lips of the conservative bloggers and talk show hosts beginning to smack as the smell of fresh meat wafted over the media landscape. Moore, whose Bowling for Columbine won the Academy Award for best documentary, won’t disappoint. The basic premise of Sicko — that the American health care system is sick (in all senses of that adjective) — is not disputed by any serious observer.

Unfortunately, Moore can’t resist taking his point to the furthest reaches of the political landscape: Cuba. In order to show up our government and our health care industry (is that redundant?) he ferries a troop of Americans, whose health has been ruined as much by our system as by their own misfortune, to Cuba, where they are given free examinations and extremely cheap medicines. The fact that a number of these people were sickened by working at the site of the World Trade Center attacks makes Moore’s point unmistakable — when our reviled Communist enemy Fidel Castro provides better health care than we do, we ought to reexamine how we’re doing things here.

Moore, of course, never uses a needle when a cudgel will do. He frequently undermines his own arguments by not filling in the subtleties that might call his conclusions into question. In his exuberance, he provides unlimited fodder to his right wing critics and those in the pay of the medical industry. The attacks should start in earnest June 29, the day the movie is released.

The main point I took away from Sicko though, was the conclusion Moore drew from France. Yes, that France, the one that many people believe belongs alongside Iraq and Cuba in the Axis of Evil. Moore pointed to the frequent mass demonstrations in France as having a real effect on the government; those manifestations of public outrage prevent the government from being too influenced by capitalist pressure to cut social benefits. As he put it, “In France, the government is afraid of the people. In America, the people are afraid of the government.”

We have 47 million Americans without health insurance. We have the leading Democratic candidate for president, who once was the primary national advocate for universal health care, now taking massive contributions from health care companies and expressing more “moderate” views. We have enshrined in law that the government which represents the people is prohibited from negotiating bulk drug prices for the benefit of its citizens. We have story after story in the mainstream press about children dying as a result of losing their health insurance. We have two recent stories in the New York Times about doctors in Minnesota taking large payments from drug companies to promote non-indicated uses for their products. And we have the local CEO of a large medical provider who wasn’t satisfied with the billion dollars he’d made by cherry picking who would get coverage and who wouldn’t, and so manipulated the dating of his stock options so he could make even more.

So, is it time to put away our “Freedom Fries” and try exercising some real freedom? Shall we take to the streets?

Not so fast.

Although my natural inclination is to recall my youth during the Vietnam war and dig out my STRIKE! T-shirt from the bottom of the attic trunk, it ain’t gonna work this time. When naïve people say that the country learned nothing from Vietnam (and that’s how we got into Iraq) they grossly underestimate how smart the guys who own the government are. They certainly have learned how to quell dissent.

The situation regarding health care is only going to change when business realizes that it’s ultimately bad for business to have an unhealthy work force. When we have economic studies that show that the country is worse off because workers are afraid to change jobs because they’ll lose their health care, when economic studies show that American companies are less competitive because they have to bear the costs of health care for their workers, and when we have studies that show that communities which are the home to large employers who don’t provide health insurance are having to bear the costs of that lack of care by subsidizing local hospitals, we might have some change. Such studies do exist, but they have no chance against the massed strength of the drug and health care companies

The health care problems of this country will only get better if the rest of the business community decides that it is in its own best interests to put gross anti-government ideology aside and throw its own economic muscle behind buying back the government. We hear all the time about how small business is the real backbone of this country. This might be our chance to find out if small business actually has one.

Let the attacks commence.