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Submitted to The Hill Times, June 25, 2007

Review of Michael Moore’s SiCKO

by Teresa Healy, Canadian Labour Congress

(802 words)


Upstairs at the World Exchange Centre they were picking up tickets, greeting one another and waving to friends on the escalator.  “No, you can’t pay for it, said Mike McBane, coordinator of the Canadian Health Coalition. It’s already been covered, just like health care!” and he laughed as he handed the grey-haired man his coupon. 


Organisers handed out flyers. A young man in a painter’s hat tossed his coat down and all his coins spilled onto the floor. A family shared a bucket of popcorn. Trade union researchers visited with development aid workers, while family physicians laughed with popular educators and students.


“Welcome everyone”, called out Mike McBane, and the audience settled back into their seats. “Shirley Douglas wanted us to see this movie before it is commercially released. This film will be an important cultural event and we’re glad you could make it tonight”. And thus we were ushered into an advance screening of Michael Moore’s world of SiCKO. 


At the outset, while we watch someone sew up his own lacerated knee, Moore tells us that this film is not about the 50 million people in the United States who have no health insurance. It is about the 250 million who do. Moore’s film is gripping in its portrayal of working Americans with private health insurance who are abused by their insurers, managed care, and the government officials funded by the drug companies and health care industry. 


We follow the journey of an insured couple who, after facing heart attacks and cancer, has to declare bankruptcy. The couple ends up at the mercy of their obnoxious children in a basement room. “If there are golden years, I can’t find them”, says a 79 year old cleaner who works in a store because of the benefits.  A young woman pays the charge for the ambulance that took her, unconscious, to the emergency room, because she did not call to have it pre-approved. Another young woman was denied coverage for cervical cancer treatments because she was too young.  A young man is too tall and thin to be insured. Another healthy young woman has a BMI that is too high. 


Moore talks to workers in the health care industry who cannot abide the ethical nightmare in which they find themselves. Doctors speak publicly about using their medical expertise to deny people treatment as their employers call every payment a “medical loss”. A call centre worker cries and says her officious phone manner is meant to keep her from caring about the people she knows will be denied. Another HMO employee talks about his experience in reviewing patients’ records after their bills were paid by the company. His job was to recoup money by finding any sign there was less than full disclosure on the application.  “You’re not slipping through the cracks”, he says. “Someone opened the crack and swept you to it.”


A mother loses her baby when she goes to an unapproved hospital. A woman is put in a cab wearing only a hospital gown and dropped outside a shelter by the hospital administration. A health care worker watches her husband die as all the recommended treatments are denied by the insurance board at her own hospital.  Volunteer emergency workers at Ground Zero after 9-11 are devastated by the health and subsequent financial impacts of their heroism.


But Moore’s film does not simply recount disaster after disaster. We travel with Moore to Canada, England, France and most poignantly (and provocatively) to Cuba.  The contrast is between barbarism and solidarity. It is unmistakable and profoundly disturbing. Moore knows his audience. He knows that they will be astonished to see themselves reflected in the eyes of others who never worry about being made homeless because of the costs of health care. He asks his compatriots to consider who they have become, and the response is a tearful one.


Tony Benn (whose coffee cup says Old Labour and Proud of It) offers Moore an explanation. He says it is difficult to govern an educated, healthy and confident population. One which is poor, demoralized and frightened will be more likely to take orders and hope for the best. Public health care, says Benn, is a legacy of the democratic revolution.


In Canada, this film will resonate deeply. Lately, we have been subjected to a barrage of arguments meant to undermine public confidence in the system. After watching SiCKO the unavoidable conclusion is that the only way private health insurance will decrease wait-times, is by reducing the number of people eligible to receive care. 


The audience emerged renewed and the conversation bubbled in the foyer.  Politicians who intend to let private insurers run loose in this country had better hope that SiCKO has a short run indeed. Otherwise, they haven’t a chance.