'Sicko' a catalyst for health care reform

Michael Moore's brilliant new movie, "Sicko," covers all the known horror stories of the modern American health care system: illnesses driving working families into bankruptcy, insurers declining coverage of needed medical procedures, insurers revoking policies from people who need care, doctors receiving bonuses for providing less treatment, patients dumped on the streets, etc.

The litany of examples of shocking disregard for humanity is so overwhelming that a skeptic might question the authenticity of Moore's muckraking film. Could it really be this bad out there?

It can. And it is.

Just last week, the Los Angeles Times reported that a state agency issued 67 citations against BC Life & Health, based on an examination of revoked health insurance policies.

BC Life & Health, a Blue Cross company, revoked 1,880 individual policies in California in 2004 and 2005. The state Department of Insurance looked at a sample -- 83 cases -- and found that more than half of them were handled improperly.

Many of the policy rescissions showed a callous indifference to the financial and health implications for the policy holders. "A rescission can be a financial death sentence when you're ill," state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner told the Times. "In my view, even one improper rescission is one too many. When it comes to rescissions, we are acutely aware that these are people's lives. They're not just numbers to us."

But it's clear that they are just numbers to health insurance companies, and not only BC Life & Health. The Times has published a series of articles over the past year revealing that it is common practice for insurance companies to revoke policies when patients develop serious illnesses.

The irony of "Sicko" is that it's not much of an exposé. Long before the movie's release, most Americans were well aware that our health care system is completely fouled up.

We know.

We also know that tinkering with the current system is not going to make a difference. It's not dented, it's totaled.

And yet, while we know a big overhaul is required, we remain conflicted about just what to do.

Moore advocates universal health care along the lines of the systems in Canada, England and France. In the movie, he travels to those countries and talks to lots of people who have pleasant things to say about their health care.

It's probably not quite as wonderful in Canada, England and France as "Sicko" suggests. Those countries have their own horror stories. But I guarantee it's not as bad as American insurance executives and their conservative media mouthpieces say, either.

Government-run universal health care -- the so-called single-payer model -- is the panacea of progressives such as Moore, and, despite being condemned as "socialism," the idea is gaining support across the country.

But there are a couple of very big obstacles to making it happen. The biggest: To create a national health system, we would have to eliminate an entire industry. The giant health insurance companies would close their doors and terminate thousands of employees.

Of course, the prospect of the heartless health insurance industry's demise might not generate much sympathy from the American rank and file. But public indifference is perhaps no match for the lobbying power of the insurers and their partners in crime, the pharmaceutical companies.

Moore reminds us what happened when President Bill Clinton proposed major health care reform in the early '90s. The insurance companies spent literally billions of dollars to pound the president's proposal with misleading advertising. I don't recall anybody asking where the insurance companies got all that money for their propaganda campaign.

While Clinton's proposal was flawed in its conception -- playing into the hands of its critics -- it never stood a chance of serious consideration amid the avalanche of partisan opposition.

The public mood has changed since then. The costs of health care have increased dramatically, and somehow the insurers have become even more sinister. In addition, universal health care has gained a new genre of supporters: large corporations.

Corporations are discovering that the current system is not just bad for individuals, it's bad for business. It's costing them a ton of money. Corporations are tired of bearing the growing burden of financing health insurance premiums for their employees.

"The refrain from business was, 'We can't afford to do universal health care," Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., told The New York Times. "Now the refrain is, 'We can't afford not to do it.' "

What's emerging is a movement to reform the health care system that is not divided along party lines. Liberals and conservatives alike see a big problem requiring a big fix.

Wyden has a proposal that could achieve universal care while not going as far as the Canadian, British or French systems. Wyden would eliminate the connection between your job and your insurance. Instead of obtaining health insurance through your employer, you would get it directly from an insurance company -- allowing you to keep your same insurance when you change jobs. In order to afford that, "all employers that offer insurance would 'cash out' their benefits -- in effect, giving their employees higher wages rather than health benefits," The New York Times explained. Employers that do not provide health benefits would have to contribute to a pool so their workers could get coverage.

Wyden's plan also would reform health insurance so the companies would have to accept "all comers." No more pre-existing conditions or policy rescissions. Furthermore, his plan would emphasize preventive health care, a key ingredient in reducing medical costs.

"The country is ready for this," Wyden told a newspaper conference I attended last month in Portland, Ore. "People know this system can't be sustained."

Wyden's proposal sounds like a big improvement on the current system. And because it would keep the insurance companies in business, it probably is politically viable.

But it's that last part -- keeping the insurance companies in business -- that leaves me leery. The insurers are the biggest problem with the current system. I'd rather take my chances with a government-run health system than keep doing battle with the heartless, shady insurance barons.

The part of "Sicko" that I found most intriguing was when Moore goes in search of the desk or office in a British hospital where patients pay for their care. There isn't one. That's how it ought to be.

In the end, "Sicko" is not really about health care reform. Moore's underlying message is that if a significant change is going to occur, the people must rise up and challenge the powers that be.

It's happened many times before in history, and it can happen again. Boston University professor Howard Zinn, who has dedicated his career to highlighting historic cases of people resisting the establishment, writes: "When we organize with one another, when we get involved, when we stand up and speak out together, we can create a power no government can suppress."

"Sicko" is intended to be a catalyst for change. When I saw it at the Suncoast, the film drew warm applause as the credits rolled. Michael Moore no doubt appreciates the plaudits, but he'd rather see those filmgoers become outspoken advocates for health care reform.

"This film stands the chance of igniting a movement," Moore wrote last week on his Web site. "Let's not let this moment pass."


Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is Stephens Media's director of community publications. He is the author of "Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas" and, coming in February, "Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue." His column appears Sunday.