To state that controversy and Michael Moore go hand and hand is to utter the obvious, and Moore's latest film Sicko will clearly be no exception.
Sicko, which will be premiering at the Cannes Film Festival in May, is a comic broadside against the state of American health care, including the mental health system. The film targets drug companies and the HMOS in the richest country in the world -- where the most money is spent on health care, but where the U.S. ranks 21st in life expectancy among the 30 most developed nations, obviously in part due to the fact that 47 million people are without health insurance.
The timing of Moore's film is propitious. Twenty-two percent of Americans say that health care is the most pressing issue in America. Health care will clearly be a major issue in the upcoming presidential campaign, as the problems with America's health care system have mushroomed during the Bush administration. For example, between 2001 and 2005 the number of people without health insurance rose 16.6 percent. The average health insurance premiums for a family of four are $10,880, which exceeds the annual gross income of $10,712 for a full-time, minimum-wage worker. In addition, the lack of insurance causes 18,000 excess deaths a year while people without health insurance have 25 percent higher mortality rates. Fifty-nine percent of uninsured people with chronic conditions such as asthma or diabetes skip medicine or go without care.
Under wraps, but one surprise out of the bag
The details of Moore's new film are being kept under tight wraps. According to inside sources, only a handful of people have seen the film, and both the film maker and Harvey Weinstein -- the film's distributor, who also distributed Moore's hugely successful Fahrenheit 9/11 -- are remaining tight-lipped about the film's contents.
Nevertheless, one aspect of the film will not be a total surprise. One of the film's segments, an increasingly controversial boat trip to Cuba, exploded onto the pages of The New York Post, the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid, when at least one 9/11 cleanup worker who had been invited to participate in a trip to Cuba for Moore's Sicko went to the press.
The boat trip, according to sources who spoke to both the NY Post and The Daily News, took ailing rescue workers to Cuba for health treatment for respiratory ailments which they suffer as a result of working at Ground Zero, and for which a number of the workers have no health insurance. The purpose of the trip, according to some, was to show that the free health care in Cuba is superior to the health care system in the U.S. Those invited on the trip, as described by Janon Fisher in the Post, were told the "Cuban doctors had developed new techniques for treating lung cancer and other respiratory illnesses," and that health care in Cuba was free.
Health care advances in Cuba
According to the Associated Press as cited in the Post article, "Cuba has made recent advancements in biotechnology and exports its treatments to 40 countries around the world, raking in an estimated $100 million a year. ... In 2004, the U.S. government granted an exception to its economic embargo against Cuba and allowed a California drug company to test three cancer vaccines developed in Havana."
Although trip participants signed confidentiality agreements prohibiting them from talking about the trip, some thought the trip a success. From the NY Post:
"From what I hear through the grapevine those people who went are utterly happy, said John Feal, who runs the Fealgood Foundation to raise money for responders and was approached by Moore to find responders willing to take the trip. "They got the Elvis treatment."
According to staff writer Bill Hutchinson from the Daily News, Moore was praised for seeking medical alternatives. Retired Firefighter Vinnie Forras, 49, said he's been going to Ecuador and Bolivia for experimental treatments for lung damage and severe headaches which he suffered at Ground Zero. "For me, anyone who's looking to try to help the guys and women who are sick is a good thing. I don't care where you go for that treatment."
On the other hand, some balked at the idea of going: "I would rather die an American than go to Cuba," Joe Picurro told the NY Post. Picurro, an ironworker with a laundry list of respiratory and other ailments, said, "I just laughed. I couldn't do it. "
America's second-class health care system
Clearly one of the themes of Moore's films, highlighted by the trip to Cuba, is to challenge the myth that the U.S. has superior health care when compared with other countries. In a recent AlterNet article, attorney Guy Saperstein explained,
"The World Health Organization ranks health care systems based on objective measures of medical outcomes: The United States' health care system currently ranks 37th in the world, behind Colombia and Portugal; the United States ranks 44th in the world in infant mortality, behind many impoverished Latin American countries. While infant mortality in the United States is skewed toward poor people, who have rates double the wealthy, the top quintile of the U.S. population has infant mortality rates higher than Canadians in the lowest quintile of wealth.
"The United States has fewer physicians, nurses and hospital beds than most developed nations. In the United States, 28 percent say it is "difficult to get care"; in most European countries, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, 15 percent say that. In terms of continuity of care (i.e., five-plus years with the same doctor), the United States is the worst of all developed nations. By every objective measure, the United States has a second-rate health care system."
It is unclear how soon after Cannes Sicko will open in U.S. theaters. But with the aggressive and often Oscar hungry Weinstein at the distribution helm, there is little doubt that the movie will make a big splash, bubbling up many more controversies. Moore's film has been a long time coming -- three years since his huge success with Fahrenheit 9/11, which was awarded the Palme d'Or (Golden Palm), the festival's highest award, by an international jury in 2004, and an Academy Award for best documentary later that year.
Legend has it that while Moore has been critical of Cuba, he became a hero there after a pirated version of Fahrenheit 9/11 was shown on government-controlled TV. It's ironic that Cuba showed a free version, because the film has made boatloads of money. According to the Wikipedia, "As of January 2005, [Fahrenheit 9/11] had broken all box office records for a documentary grossing nearly US $120 million in U.S. box office, and over US $220 million worldwide, an unprecedented amount for a political documentary; Sony reported first-day DVD sales of two million copies, again a new record for the genre."
Only time will tell if Moore can duplicate his success.