Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Sick of the system

Michael Moore takes aim at America’s deadly health care industry By Carl Kozlowski

The doctors are in: Michael Moore and LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa offer their prescription for a healthier city

Think of Hollywood movie premieres and images of red carpets, glamorous celebrities and paparazzi will likely come to mind. Michael Moore had an entirely different idea in mind for the Hollywood debut of his new film “SiCKO.”
The rabble-rousing populist documentarian, who previously took on
automaker General Motors over massive corporate layoffs in “Roger & Me,” confronted America's gun and media culture in the Oscar-winning “Bowling for Columbine” and exposed the horrific handling of the War on Terror by the Bush administration in the 2004 smash hit “Fahrenheit 9/11,” actually did have a fancy premiere in Hollywood Tuesday night.

But on Monday he took his movie to the streets of downtown LA — literally.

In one of the more surreal movie events ever to hit Los Angeles, Moore arranged for a full-sized movie screen to be set up on a Skid Row street in back of the Union Rescue Mission and unspooled the film before a raucously appreciative audience of hundreds of homeless people, complete with popcorn and Pepsis.

With LAPD officers posted near the screen, the roar of police helicopters occasionally scanning from the skies and the sound of sirens passing rapidly in the night, it was an occasion vastly different from the staid critics' screening held the previous Thursday at The Grove's movie theater on the West Side.

But make no mistake, the chance to sit among the poorest of the poor as they watched a famous man actually show up and advocate for their needs was a powerful experience.

As Moore strode from behind the screen toward the crowd in his trademark baseball cap and sneakers, dozens of people in the audience leapt to their feet spontaneously, pumping their fists in the air and screaming his name while others ran toward him to shake his hand or attempt to hug him.

It was clear that this was no mere publicity stunt. The only press around was a cable movie channel and a crew from Noticias television, leaving the Pasadena Weekly with a citywide exclusive interview with Moore, thanks largely to the fact that that same night Moore abruptly called off the next day's scheduled press events in Beverly Hills in favor of participating in a health care reform rally at Los Angeles City Hall.

“I said to Michael I want people who are in the street and in the movie to see the movie, and asked if he could do a premiere on the streets of Skid Row. He loved the idea and made it all happen,” said Andy Bales, CEO of the Union Rescue Mission. “I've seen the film four times at other cities' events and I think it will get people talking — and hopefully it's his goal too to move us from me-centered to we-centered society and make sure everyone has health care.”

Children of God
Indeed, “SiCKO” is a film that speaks squarely to the concerns of the poorest members of society, as when Moore tells the story of a 63-year-old homeless and disoriented woman named Carol Reyes, who was dumped off by a taxicab in front of Union Rescue Mission in March 2006 after officials at Kaiser Permanente's Bellflower hospital decided that caring for her had become too costly.

Moore shows the incredibly sad footage, taken by the Mission's security cameras, of Reyes pacing lost and alone and wearing only a thin hospital gown on the street. She had long lived in a public park in far-away Gardena and had no idea she would be dumped in downtown's Skid Row, leaving her in danger until Mission staff went out to see what was wrong.

Initially, it was impossible to determine which hospital she had come from because the names of two different hospitals had been rubbed out from her patient wristbands. But eventually the Bellflower hospital was pegged as the culprit, and public outrage forced officials to do their jobs.
Criminal charges were filed against the hospital's officials and Kaiser was forced to pay a large class-action lawsuit settlement designed to stop the practice of patient dumping from occurring again.

“These corporate hospitals like Kaiser take patients who can't afford to pay their own hospital bill in cabs and dump them like they're garbage in front of these buildings, when they're human beings created by God,” says Moore, speaking from behind the giant movie screen on San Julian Street as “SiCKO” was shown.

“It's a travesty, and I'm so grateful to the people here at the Rescue Mission and Andy Bales because day after day, week after week, they saw sick people dumped here and one day they said ‘enough is enough' and they called the police on the hospital, and the police and city attorney filed criminal charges. It was a rare moment when the rich faced arrest for their treatment of the poor.

“When somebody is left to die in an ER or on the streets of LA, you should call 911 and report an attempted murder: murder by the hospital, murder by the health insurance company, murder by the pharmaceutical company, because that's exactly what they're doing.”

Reaching out
It may sound like Moore is merely unleashing his usual righteous indignation, but the surprising thing about “SiCKO” is the fact that he lays out his arguments in a relatively subdued fashion. This isn't the Bush-bashing spectacular of “Fahrenheit,” and he's not pulling a string of pranks to get his point across like he did on his two Emmy-winning 1990s TV series, “TV Nation” and “The Awful Truth.” He doesn't crash the offices of any health care company to subject CEOs and their public relations shills to hilarious humiliation.

Instead, Moore realized that even as “Fahrenheit” exploded to set the all-time gross record for documentaries with its $120 million take, he had become such a polarizing figure that he risked having half of America tune him out completely on the subject. So he decided that — just as the best legislative progress comes from bipartisan cooperation — he too had to reach across the ideological divide and point out that the American health care debacle is no single party's fault.

He even takes his biggest slap at Hillary Clinton, pointing out that she sold out over the years between her 1994 efforts to create universal health care as first lady and her current status as Congress's second-largest recipient of health care lobbyist donations.

Moore's new approach is a decided attempt to have the issues take center stage, rather than his own controversial image, which was burned into the American psyche at the 2003 Oscars ceremony when he went on live worldwide television to warn that the rationale for the then-impending war in Iraq was built on lies rather than any genuine threat to our national safety.

“But people should ask why I'm controversial. I told the American people from the stage of the Oscars that we were being lied to about weapons of mass destruction and I got booed,” he recalls. “These days, I get a lot of Republicans stopping me on the street and apologizing to me. They now see I was trying to warn them the Emperor has no clothes, and I'm now in the middle of mainstream America.”

It's middle class, mainstream America that Moore really focuses on in “SiCKO.” He realized that the media had long informed Americans of the fact that more than 50 million people lacked health coverage in the US, so he decided to turn his attention to those who are ostensibly covered and still get screwed through payment denials, refusals of life-saving procedures and insanely high premiums.

One particularly sad segment of the film spotlights the tragedy of Dawnelle Keys, a Los Angeles woman whose

18-month-old daughter Mychelle contracted a 104-degree fever, vomiting and diarrhea on May 6, 1993. Keys tried to take her toddler to the emergency room at King/Drew Medical Center and found a doctor who said Mychelle had a bacterial infection that needed immediate treatment with antibiotics.

Yet because King/Drew was considered an unaffiliated hospital under Keys' Kaiser Permanente health care plan, the insurance giant refused to approve the medication and attendant blood culture, forcing Keys to spend hours begging for an ambulance to take her daughter to a Kaiser-approved hospital.

By the time Mychelle was finally taken to the approved hospital, she was in need of resuscitation. Within 30 minutes of arrival at the “correct” facility, the child was dead.

“She would have been 15 and a half years old now,” said Keys at a health care-reform rally Moore attended at Los Angeles City Hall on Tuesday morning.

Horror stories
Other victims depicted in the movie include a retired couple who were forced to move into a relative's storage room when health care costs forced them to sell their house, and a woman whose husband died on her birthday because the health insurance company she worked for refused to approve a bone marrow transplant from his own brother.

Moore collected the tragic tales after putting out an open call through his Web site,, for people to submit their health care travails. Within a week, he had received more than 25,000 emails on the subject and that total continued to grow exponentially.
“Over the past few decades, the pharmaceutical companies have done an excellent organizing job for us. They have so abused the people of this country, even those who have health insurance, and the people who think they're covered find that the whole point of the companies is to see how little of the bill they have to pay,” Moore said from the podium at the same rally.

“Health insurance in this country is a racket; it's Vegas, and the house always has to win. It's a system based on figuring out what the odds are and that's why they don't wanna insure people who might get sick. They send out investigative teams to find out if you had pre-existing conditions so they can get their money back.”

“SiCKO” offers damning testimony from former insurance corporation employees who blow the whistle on the corner-cutting prevalent in the industry, with one woman showing that her former employer would refuse anyone who had any pre-existing condition found in a 37-page list. But the climax — and the film's sole problem-solving prank — centers upon the plight of volunteer 9/11 rescue workers who now suffer from life-threatening illnesses that the government won't cover because they weren't on the public payroll.

In a brilliant move, Moore rents three boats and fills them with the sick volunteers before making a hilarious trip to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. The reason for the excursion is that the US-run base houses accused terrorists, who, officials at the prison facility have openly bragged, receive the finest medical care possible.

Moore decides to take the rescue workers there in hopes of enabling them to receive the same quality care as our alleged national enemies. Instead, they wind up receiving the care they need and huge supplies of medicine from a Havana hospital, but the trip has nonetheless resulted in the US Commerce Department investigating whether Moore broke laws in defying the government's embargo against the communist nation.

“Sixty-two percent of the American public now is opposed to the embargo against Cuba. The American people have had it, and are tired of being told who the enemy is. The American people fell for that when we were told Saddam was going to attack us,” Moore says at the Skid Row screening. “We don't wanna listen to anyone else in the government telling us who our enemy is, whether it's Saddam or Castro or whatever. We as human beings wanna live in this world with other human beings, and the people in Cuba are human beings and we want them to share with us and we will share with them.”

Furthermore, Moore believes that government outrage over his trip is yet another sign of the Bush administration's efforts to quash dissent in the post-9/11 world.

“The Bush administration is coming after me because this film is an embarrassment to them. I pointed out how the detainees we have at Guantanamo Bay are getting better health care than the 9/11 rescue workers who ran down to Ground Zero to save peoples lives,” says Moore. “That is so wrong on so many levels, so they're going after me because I point out the truth to people. What kind of free country is this anyways, where you make a documentary and you've got the government investigating you? What kind of free country is it where you can't travel where you want to travel? I'm just grateful the Bush administration is showing the American people exactly how free we are.”

But what of those critics who point out that Cuba's health care system is ranked 39th in the world by the World Health Organization, two places behind America's supposedly hopeless system? The movie shows the list, but Moore himself doesn't discuss that salient point in the film. He had no problem laughing off the critique in his Skid Row interview, however.

“We're paying 60 times as much as the Cubans are,” he says, shaking with laughter. “And we're only two steps ahead of them. I think it's pretty funny.”

‘A Christian thing to do'
While the American way of life deteriorates at home, Moore shows that the quality of life in some other nations is vastly better. He takes the audience on a European vacation to England and France, revealing societies that are stable democracies with full speech and press freedoms and well-off families. In Paris, he joins a dinner of American expatriates who speak with awe at the services that French society provides, extending far beyond free health care to include 24-hour house calls from doctors, free college education and even free laundry service.

Yet the Americans stress that the tax rates in their adopted society don't cramp their dreams, pointing out that they have good homes and cars to go along with their lack of worry over basic survival.

And in England, he spotlights a doctor who still manages to own a new Audi and a million-dollar home on his government salary. Moore sums up the travelogue by questioning whether we're taught contempt for the French simply because the government doesn't want us to be jealous and start getting any ideas about free quality care for ourselves.

“These are countries that say we're all in the same boat and we sink or swim together. Countries that live with the concept of ‘we' and not ‘me.' It's not ‘me me me' in these other countries, it's ‘we,'” says Moore. “And if we allow too many people to slip between the cracks of society, we all suffer. Not just those who slip between the cracks, but all of society is ruined. All the rest of the world's 25 leading industrial nations provide health care as a basic human right. Could it be that maybe they're right and we're wrong?”

Despite all the sadness spotlighted in the film, Moore finds hope in the fact that the majority of Americans are finally getting fed up. While he argues that most Americans are brainwashed by newscasts often funded by pharmaceutical commercials, he also feels the true need for a better way is starting to break through the ad clutter.

Moore also said he was encouraged by California having two competing health care reform proposals working their way through the halls of government in Sacramento. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is touting a plan that mandates that all Californians purchase health insurance from a private carrier, but places few controls on the price and quality of the coverage. Businesses would be forced to spend 4 percent of their payroll costs on providing insurance to employees or paying into a state fund for uninsured workers.

Meanwhile, two competing Democratic bills offer their own distinct visions. Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez has a bill that would cover all children, but would not cover single, childless and unemployed adults and would exempt the self-employed and businesses with payrolls less than $100,000 per year.

Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata would also exempt the self-employed, but according to a report by the Los Angeles Times, would mandate health insurance for individuals making at least $40,840 per year and families of four with earnings at or more than $82,600.

But Moore believes that it's the federal government that needs to come up with one overarching piece of legislation in order to prevent a morass of 50 competing state-level bills, and he heartily endorses HR 676, a comprehensive health care bill co-sponsored by US Congressman and presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich and his fellow Democrat John Conyers.

Moore firmly believes that true and lasting reform is coming to America as soon as the current White House resident is shown the door at the end of 2008. But until then, he has three last things for all of us — especially the enemies who like to toss epithets such as “communist” at him — to consider.

“Go for a half-hour walk each day and eat some fruits and vegetables. Take care of yourself, and that's what I need to do,” says Moore, who has lost 25 pounds and counting on a diet and exercise program. “Second, demand that the candidates running for president next year make a pledge to support universal health care for all, and it's not enough to say they want it — they need specifics in the plan.

“But behind it all, we need to realize that if we say we're a Christian nation, providing health care for every American is the Christian thing to do,” concludes Moore, a Catholic who embarked on his quest for social justice after opting not to become a priest.

“I don't know why we call a Christian act socialism. I think Jesus would want for every one of us to take care of human beings and guarantee it for everyone.”

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