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Michael Moore, Provocateur Extraordinaire, is Back

After a three-year hiatus, Academy Award-winning writer/director/polemicist/celebrity Michael Moore (Fahrenheit 9/11, Bowling for Columbine, Roger and Me) is back with his latest documentary, Sicko, this time taking on the U.S. healthcare system. Coming from the left-leaning Moore neither the diagnosis nor the prognosis is surprising: free, universal, healthcare. That Moore may be right in both instances, of course, depends on what political values you might hold and the general expectations about the level of healthcare you expect. Sicko asks more questions than it answers, but at minimum, it should kick start a national dialogue.

Sicko focuses not on the 47 million Americans without healthcare, but instead on the other 250 million Americans who do, in fact, have healthcare through their employers or the government. For them, having “full coverage” doesn’t mean what they think it means. With for-profit health management organizations (HMOs) attempting to keep costs down and shareholder values up, denial of benefits -- either during the application process for pre-existing conditions or after a medical claim has been filed -- makes good business sense. HMOs have created an entire bureaucracy around that particular principle. Those with insurance simply want their illnesses and, thus, their claims, covered as expected.

After a series of interviews with Americans who’ve had difficulties in receiving coverage in the United States, Moore decides to check out how other Western industrialized countries handle healthcare. Moore ventures into Canada from Michigan, his home state, first following an American woman who pretends she’s a Canadian resident to obtain healthcare for her and her daughter, then visits two elderly relatives who enumerate the healthcare benefits of being Canadian citizens (they take out private insurance before venturing into the United States). Moore’s relatives mention Thomas Douglas, a Canadian politician who championed universal healthcare who was voted the “Greatest Canadian” in a 2004 television poll, demonstrating that even a self-described member of the Canadian Conservative Party accepts free, universal healthcare as a given.

Moore and his crew also visit Great Britain, France, and Cuba. Each has free, universal healthcare. In Great Britain, Moore discovers that government doctors still get paid well (one doctor owns a million dollar home and drives an expensive sedan). The government, through taxation, covers doctors' visits and hospital stays. Prescription medicines cost the equivalent of $10 dollars per prescription regardless of amount.

France offers free medical care, paid time off to recuperate from serious illnesses (the government pays 65% and employers the other 35%). Moore ventures to Cuba with 9/11 rescue workers who have been denied disability benefits or have received inadequate care. The Cuban doctors perform extensive testing and treatment programs (not to mention cheap drugs). Not surprisingly, infant mortality rates are lower and longevity higher in all four countries than in the United States (which ranks one spot above Slovenia at number 37 in a recent report by the United Nations).

While Moore makes a strong claim for free, universal healthcare (as well as anyone can in two hours), he doesn’t do himself or his position any favors by downplaying or ignoring potential criticisms of nationalized healthcare or by visiting Cuba, a non-democratic, communist country when, frankly, it gives Castro free propaganda and Moore’s right-wing critics ample ammunition to use against him.

Cuba and Castro aside, Moore astutely recognizes the powerful economic, social, cultural, and political forces in the United States that make universal healthcare nearly impossible to implement nationally. He uses former First Lady Hilary Clinton’s ill-fated effort to reform healthcare during Bill Clinton’s first term in office. The healthcare industry spent more than $100 million to defeat Hilary Clinton’s reform effort. More than a decade later, Senator Clinton receives substantial campaign contributions from the same industries. Ultimately, Moore’s solution might be frustratingly short on detail, but he’s raised questions that should have been asked long ago.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars