19 October 2014

I love going to the movies, almost as much as I love reading. I adore the smell of fresh popcorn and even watching the previews, which perversely make the movies they showcase look remarkably unappealing. (At the very least, I can chortle to myself about how much money I'll save by not going to see them.) I like escaping to another world for ninety minutes and movies are so much less work than reading a book. All you have to do is show up, sit back and enjoy.

Over time, I have fine-tuned the types of movies I see. I'm not interested in blood and guts, or slasher movies which inevitably devolve into why-I-hate-women; let-me-graphically-count-the-ways. I like intelligent dialogue and believable relationships. The scene in Sleepless in Seattle when Tom Hanks and his brother-in law are discussing movies – they favor the Dirty Dozen while his sister loves An Affair to Remember - is classic gender miscommunication. I concluded long ago, incidentally, that men really are from Mars. I love when my husband and son bond over sports statistics and endless recaps but I fail to see the allure of watching countless televised games night after night, sometimes two games at the same time. Oh, the wonders of modern technology!

I'm pretty circumspect in my movie choices. You will rarely find me at a movie whose audience is filled with testosterone-pumped teenagers. My version of escape does not include car chases and crashes. And horror movies hold absolutely no appeal. So, why did I choose to attend Sicko on a Saturday night when I could have hunted down a romantic comedy? It definitely is a horror movie, a depressing look at the health care system we call our own. The truth is that while I knew that Sicko was going to be a downer, it never occurred to me not to go. My husband was eager to see it, too. When weather conditions prevented Michael Moore from attending the Take Back America Conference in DC a few weeks ago, thousands of us attendees lamented missing his talk about this, his latest documentary.

Coming out of the movie, I thought about us as a nation consumed with anxiety. As jobs are outsourced and downsized, we naturally fear unemployment, underemployment and  the specter of becoming uninsured. My husband runs a small auto-parts warehouse. He supplies health insurance for himself and his workers. The premiums jump by leaps and bounds, like a baby kangaroo on speed, sometimes doubling from one year to another. Rafi's partner spends a good portion of his office hours researching various health plans, frantically trying to minimize the next inevitable rate increase. It's a losing battle. Needless to say, for Rafi and millions of other small business owners, the exploding cost of health care has whittled away at their profits.

Rafi is both a workaholic and a smoker. Frankly, I worry about his health and how we would cope if something happened to him. I am not insured through either of my jobs. The older couple profiled in Sicko once had secure jobs and insurance. Yet, they find themselves bankrupt after three heart attacks (his) and cancer (hers) and are forced to move in with one of their adult kids. This unwilling dependence is the embodiment of my worst fears. Two of my own children have already graduated from college. I worry about their job options and the availability of health benefits. My son is a senior in high school. College looms in his future with the possibility of thousands of dollars of debt. When millions of recent graduates, saddled with student loans, battle over shrinking numbers of good jobs, we're all in trouble.

Who among us, however careful, conservative or genetically blessed, can guarantee that he will not be struck down by illness or accident? This subliminal fear and anxiety forms an underlying drumbeat for our daily lives. A recent study showed that the poorest British citizen fares better than the wealthiest American in terms of life expectancy and overall health.

That's sobering. We tend to think America is always at the top of the heap;  regarding our health care, we've clearly been deluding ourselves. We take a vast array of prescription drugs to keep on an even keel: to calm us down, keep us going, put us to sleep, smooth out our fears. We're a mess. But don't worry -there's a pill for everything. The sound you're hearing in the background is the cash register ringing nonstop at the pharmaceutical company.?

As Moore flits around from Canada to Great Britain to France to Cuba, we see a completely different world out there, based on a completely different set of assumptions. Each of these countries decided, at one point, that universal health care was a positive national value and that it would be worth the investment and sacrifice for the betterment of the general population. Cuba is a very poor country without natural resources; the British made the switch at the conclusion of World War II, amidst a frenzy of reconstruction. When our politicians hurry to tell us that we can't possibly afford universal health care, it rings hollow. They have funneled trillions of dollars and the futures of our young people into a totally unjustified war, and yet for something that affects the quality of life of every single American, there's no money? I don't buy it. Could this have anything to do with the fact that "the drug and insurance companies have dumped over a half billion dollars in the pockets of Congress and the White House in the last 10 years"? (quoted from Michael Moore's email heralding the release of the movie). ?

Does the fact that members of Congress (and the occupants of the White House, as well) have such wonderful health insurance figure in here at all or am I being overly suspicious? Is it that they can't relate because their public service has exempted them from our concern? Do we all need to run for office, in search of the holy grail of health insurance for ourselves and our families? Does good health coverage extend to local and state office holders, for that matter? This is certainly one way to increase public participation in our elections. Is that any more far-fetched than the son-in-law in Sicko who takes a job as a plumbing contractor in Iraq because local jobs are nonexistent? What the heck is going on here? There is something very wrong with this picture.?

I'm sure that the reality is far more complex than presented here. Documentaries are like Impressionist paintings: they capture a mood, a moment in time. But the overwhelming evidence points to a system that works only to enrich the private corporations whose goal is to deny service and boost profits. Dr. Linda Peena testified before Congress about how her job at an insurance company routinely denying claims led to the death of at least one patient. Rather than being called to account for her actions, she was promoted for saving her employer's bottom line – to the tune of half a million dollars, in this single case. Looking for ways to deny services was the goal of her department. Lists - tracking how each member of her department was doing in this race to deny benefits - were issued regularly to spur employees to compete with one another, to show greater effort, to achieve better results. This reminded me of the session on "Curbing Corporate Crime" that I attended at the Take Back America Conference last month. The executives who had fired the most workers got the biggest bonuses. ?

Recorded footage of a conversation between President Nixon and one of his trusted aides demonstrates for posterity the real motivation behind the legislation which gave us HMOs in the '70s. It was the CEO from Kaiser Permanente who sold them on HMOs by stressing the profit motive. Quality of care was never discussed and was, in fact, beside the point. The "p word" has been the name of the game and its driving force ever since.?

For you Grisham fans out there, The Rainmaker was not Hollywood hype. The story of the fictional Donny Ray, who was dying from leukemia because his family's insurance company refused to cover his medical treatment, could easily have been one of the people in Moore's movie. In another victory for the corporate balance sheet, Donny Ray died, without receiving the care he needed. A number of those profiled in Sicko do not make it to the end credits either. ?

I'm not even touching on the U.K.'s six month paid maternity leave (with optional additional six-month unpaid leave) or the five weeks vacation that people routinely get in France. Doctors even make house calls. We may love to hate the French but the young American expats sitting around a table discussing quality of life issues hit all the right notes. When the question of the number of allowed sick days is raised, they look around at one another in puzzlement. How can you arbitrarily limit sick days? When you're sick you're sick. It's pretty self-explanatory to them. One  young woman feels guilty that she's so young and enjoying these wonderful perks (not to mention free university tuition) that her parents, who have worked hard their whole lives, have not yet achieved. Besides the website (hook-a-canuck.com) which claims to help Americans looking to marry a Canadian and receive health insurance at the same time, there's precious little we can do about these tantalizing glimpses into a more humane way of life. Few of us are going to actually move to Europe in order to achieve what they have. We want it here; we need it now. But how??

Moore takes three 9/11 rescue workers to Cuba, along with three boatloads of other Americans needing medical care. Because of their volunteer status, many rescue workers who sustained severe respiratory damage were denied medical coverage. There is a poignant scene where the trio go to a Cuban fire station. The uniformed firemen stand at attention to give homage to them and show solidarity with Americans over the 9/11 attack. This small, poor country honors their efforts in a more substantial and meaningful way than the American government has. Providing inhalers for a nickel a piece means a lot to this woman who has been paying $120 for them in the United States. The contrast is startling, regardless of your political views about Cuba. Our government's neglect of our wounded GIs amidst hypocritical admonitions to support the troops is the same schizophrenic attitude shown toward these volunteer rescue workers. While their sacrifices may have popped up in every speech out of the White House for the last six years, these heroes are ignored in every important way. The government continues to treat its citizens very shabbily. It needs to be called on this shameful behavior. What are we prepared to do about it?

In America, our focus on profit has basically created an adversarial relationship between all of the major components of the system – hospitals, clinics, insurance companies, doctors and patients. They look at one another with suspicion and distrust because money and not quality care is the chief, if unstated, motivation. Hired guns are brought in by insurance companies to sniff out ways to get out of paying claims, or, once the claim has been paid, how to get it back. There is good reason for us to distrust these companies. Their concern is definitely not the patient, but their corporate profit margin. This breeds a situation which is dangerous to our national well-being. And, I'm not even talking about the huge and growing number of totally uninsured. The people Moore interviewed from Great Britain, France and Canada were thrilled with the availability of affordable universal health care. This is the challenge that we must take on. The longer we wait, more of our citizens will fall through the cracks and conclude that their government does not care about them. They will be right.?

While this isn't what I'd call a fun movie, it is definitely worth seeing and discussing. Sicko effectively contrasts what others elsewhere take for granted with our situation here at home. How exactly Congress and the White House can disentangle themselves from the sticky tentacles of the pharmaceutical and insurance companies is the $64,000 question. I guarantee that it will not happen without a lot of noise from their constituencies. That means you. Unless you have a very large and secure trust fund, none of us are exempt from this nationwide crisis of epic proportions. The sooner all of us realize that the problem is much deeper even than the many millions of uninsured, we will stand up and demand change. This system does is not working – for anyone. We are all at risk.  If you don't believe me, I dare you to get sick and see what happens. Sicko has laid the groundwork in this debate. Now, it's up to us. Thank you, Michael Moore!

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Joan Brunwasser of Citizens for Election Reform is a citizen activist working hard to restore and preserve free and fair elections. She started a lending library project to distribute the "Invisible Ballots" DVD in  mid September 2005.  In the following eighteen months, she loaned the DVD to almost 3,200 'borrowers' in 37 states, DC, Puerto Rico, Canada, Holland, England, Ireland and Japan. Since the DVD's release in spring 2004, there have been numerous studies and hacks, all of them critical of electronic voting. Her new focus is on raising public awareness about what's wrong with our elections and how to achieve a fair, secure and transparent election system. She welcomes your help in spreading the word. She has been the Voting Integrity Editor for Op Ed News since December 2005.