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Faulty diagnosis

Movies | Sicko raises interesting questions but dodges honest answers

Issue: "All heart," July 14, 2007

Michael Moore has always been good at comedy, and Sicko (rated PG-13 for brief strong language) does manage to strike the funny bone a time or two during its critique of American health care.

One woman's complaint about layers of insurance bureaucracy sounds like a Seinfeld routine. She tells Moore that an ambulance rushed her to the hospital after she was hit head-on in a car accident. Then she says, "I get a bill from my insurance company telling me that the ambulance ride wasn't pre-approved. . . . I don't know when I was supposed to pre-approve it. . . . After I gained consciousness in the car? Before I got into the ambulance?"

It's too easy simply to dismiss Sicko as another piece of Moore's left-wing propaganda. Some questions he raises are provocative-even if his answers are wrong. This time, he charges that big insurance companies are more concerned with controlling costs than with providing quality health care.

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Sicko leans most heavily on anecdotes garnered from an online plea Moore made in 2006 for readers to send him their own health-care horror stories. Unlike the ambulance woman, most hit without a punchline.

For example, Moore interviews a woman whose husband died from kidney cancer soon after the couple's insurance provider declined a possible treatment option, claiming it was too experimental. He interviews a mother in 1993 who took her 18-month-old, hit by a treatable blood infection, to the closest emergency room-only to find that officials there claimed her HMO required she seek treatment at an approved hospital. The child died. Moore interviews an HMO employee who says he combed through medical histories and applications of patients looking for ways to deny claims.

Moore also shows the archived congressional testimony of Linda Peeno, a former Humana executive, who admitted she denied a man a heart operation that would have saved his life because it would cost the company too much. "I was 'rewarded' for this," she told congressmen. "It bought me an improved reputation in my job, and contributed to my advancement afterwards."

Moore's attack on the profit motive leads him to pine for the socialized systems of Canada, Britain, France, and even Cuba. Here, instead of selecting horror stories, he provides happy anecdotes. He finds a London, Ontario, hospital with short wait times. He goes to a United Kingdom hospital where nobody pays a dime and the cashier hands patients money for the tube or taxi when they leave. In France, one doctor rattles off a familiar Marxist ideal: "You pay according to your means, and you receive according to your needs."

What Moore doesn't tell you: Wait times in Canada for routine procedures like MRIs often take months, and many Canadians cross into the United States to pay for life-saving treatments rather than die waiting for their tax-funded medical care to kick in. The dentist shortage in Britain's National Health Service is so bad that many, like Gordon Cook (who superglued a loose crown after a futile three-year wait), choose homemade solutions. France's shortage of doctors and nurses contributed to many of the nearly 15,000 deaths during a brief heat wave in 2003.

Moore glosses over the ugly parts of socialized care and then uses World Health Organization rankings to embarrass the United States: We finish 37th-just ahead of Slovenia. The WHO rankings explicitly favor nations with socialized care, so they shouldn't be taken too seriously, but they do include one interesting statistic: When it comes to patients' satisfaction with their health care, Americans are the most content in the world, says WHO-far, far happier than our discontented French, British, or Canadian brethren who have to live with a socialized medicine they too might call sicko.

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