`Sicko' raises right questions about our ailing system

June 29, 2007|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- America's got a terrific health care system, as long as you don't get sick.

That much, at least, seems to be conceded even by lobbyists for the nation's health insurance industry. That's judging by one of the few who showed up at Michael Moore's invitation for the Washington premiere of his new movie, Sicko.

"Look, identifying problems in our health care system is like shooting fish in a barrel," consultant Claudia Schlosberg was quoted as saying by The Washington Post. The real issue, she said, is finding solutions.

That's easy to say when you represent the industry that grew those fish in what's becoming a shrinking barrel. Numerous congressional proposals have offered wider, less-expensive and more-reliable coverage than Americans receive from our current patchwork, employer-based system.

But no matter how workable, practical or desirable the proposals may be, the insurance industry reliably shoots them down. Armed with billions of dollars for political campaign contributions, spin doctors and attack ads, the industry has largely steered the nation's health care debate for decades.

Mr. Moore evens things up a bit. He uses the same pop culture that brings you Paris Hilton and American Idol to offer something truly valuable: a vision of a better American health care system than the one we have.

Mr. Moore is famous for his gonzo attempts to embarrass the rich, powerful or stupid on camera in his past documentary essays. This time, he's a tad more serious and, I think, more effective. He allows the horror stories of lost coverage, lost limbs, lost homes and lost lives to be told mostly by the working-class people who suffered through them. He interviews a few whistleblowers who became fed up with helping insurance companies to grow their earnings by shrinking their care.

He offers something else that most Americans never see: how easily anyone - including visitors - can access good public health care in Canada and Europe and how satisfied those country's citizens are with their systems. Critics predictably charge Mr. Moore with sugar-coating his view of the other countries, particularly Cuba, where Fidel Castro's government still affords superior care to favored Communist Party elites. Nevertheless, having witnessed health care in each of the countries Mr. Moore visits, I think he got it about right.

In Canada and Europe, customer satisfaction is high, despite the drawbacks. Defenders of our health care status quo come up with one horror story after another of long lines, waiting lists, rising costs or rationed care. But they don't like to talk about the long lines, waiting lists, rising costs or rationed care that Americans face in our existing system. Mr. Moore's movie does.

Nobody's system is perfect. But despite the smear job that conservatives over here give to British health care, for example, stalwart conservatives over there aren't mounting much of an effort to change it. Similarly, Washington's Medicare debate centers on how it should be run, not whether it should exist.

But that doesn't make Mr. Moore's argument any easier. Americans don't like to change, even when it is for the better. President Bush found that out when he tried to sell the opportunity for each of us to invest part of our Social Security contributions in the stock market, if we so choose. Not a bad idea, really. Nobody would be forced to do it. Yet the more speeches he gave on the subject, the less popular it became.

What is to be done? On his Web site, Mr. Moore spells out his agenda in three simple steps: Provide free, lifelong universal health care for every resident; abolish all health insurance companies; and "strictly" regulate pharmaceutical companies "like a public utility."

Sicko diagnoses what's wrong but leaves the details of prescriptions largely to the rest of us. That's wise. There are about 10 million more uninsured Americans today than there were when Bill and Hillary Clinton launched their health care debate in the early 1990s. Mr. Moore hasn't got all the answers, but he helps us to raise the right questions.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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