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The ever present good-girl, eldest child in me reeled in horror as I watched Michael Moore’s latest film SiCKO. Important lessons my parents taught me (and I have dutifully followed) about taking responsible care of one’s self—including working a “good job” where your health insurance needs will be met—were undone frame by frame by Moore’s clever and troubling examination of the American health care system. Because, as Moore states in the first five minutes of the film, this is not a movie about the sizable population in the United States who are not insured; this is a movie about people like me who are. Adding to my sense of discomfort, I walked away from the film wondering about my profound ignorance on the state of health care in my own country—never mind the health care systems of other countries. What made bearable the unsettling experience of having my assumptions tested and my ignorance probed was the realization that I am not alone in either case. Apparently, on this issue at least, I am a fairly normal citizen of the United States; that is, I have been grossly uninformed about the state of our health care system. Or, even worse, misinformed.
Moore’s approach in SiCKO is to build his argument for universal health care by linking together stories of personal loss and tragedy resulting from an irreparably broken, even corrupted, American health care system; juxtaposing those stories against an alternative vision of health care being lived out in other countries: Canada, Britain, France, and, most surprising of all, Cuba; and positing systemic change by appealing to the greatest common denominator: a deep regard for human life and dignity that transcends political affiliations and defines American ideals.The success of Moore’s film is that he manages to keep the human dimension of the health care plight in full view while exposing the terrible brokenness of the American system itself. He could have easily fallen in the direction of making a maudlin tear-jerker of a film or, in the other direction, a spewing cauldron of angry polemic. But the balance he achieves between heart and head results in a compelling argument grounded in personal and political realities. Even my husband, who somewhat reluctantly joined me in seeing the film given his historical distaste for Moore’s insinuating, rhetorical style, was compelled by the sense of truth-telling that characterizes SiCKO.
Smartly, Moore anticipates the questions and concerns that are frequently raised in a discussion of universal health care. The scary world of “socialized medicine” is made a little friendlier with a playful musical aside pointing out that libraries, public schools, firefighters and police are funded by taxes much in the same way as universal health care would be. And the commonly held belief that universal health care compromises the quality and availability of medical treatment is dispelled with evidence to the contrary in cinematic trips to emergency rooms, hospital corridors, and home calls in countries where universal health care is a fact of life. Witnessing the happy and healthy faces of the beneficiaries of these foreign health care systems provided a stark contrast to the litany of horrors voiced from our own: a mother recounts the death of her young daughter after a battle to obtain emergency treatment at a hospital not covered by her insurance provider, a wife mourns the death of her husband after he was denied a life-saving treatment because it was deemed “experimental” by their insurance company, a former medical director at an insurance company confesses her role in denying medically appropriate care to patients for the purpose of saving money and competing for a bonus, a surveillance camera records an ill and disoriented woman in a hospital gown being dumped by taxi at the curb of a shelter because there is no room for her at the hospital.These and other stories evoked feelings of disbelief and outrage as I began to consider how my country, the wealthiest nation in the world, could allow—even create—these injustices when other countries of supposedly lesser means are able to meet the health care needs of their citizens. And I was humbled as I watched 9/11 rescue workers with serious and chronic health care issues receive free, competent, and humane treatment in Cuba. The cognitive dissonance I experienced was palpable: How could this be Cuba? You mean, a third-world country led by a dictator is able to provide inexpensive, quality health care to its people and my own country can’t? Seeing this reversal of roles, the strong becoming the vulnerable, the enemy becoming the friend evoked a sense of hope and compassion that I would best describe as a movement of the Spirit.
And if SiCKO convinced me of anything it is this: our crisis of health care is not only a political issue, it is a spiritual one. Perhaps if Americans began to engage in the health care debate with this truth in mind, the necessary political corrections would follow. Other countries have already taken the lead in aligning universally shared spiritual values of compassion and human dignity with political will and action. One Canadian woman interviewed by Moore in a hospital emergency room reflected on the health care system of her country, saying, “it’s a fabulous system to make sure the least of us and the best of us are taken care of.” In this and other statements in the film, it is hard not to hear echoes of Matthew 25 where Jesus’ definition of righteousness is to simply serve the “least of these.” But as Moore points out, it is not simply the “least” of us who are in need; where health care in America is concerned, most of us are in need.
Documentary. 113 min. PG-13. Now available on DVD.
Note: This review was previously published on the original Spectrum blog. To read past comments, click here.