Health Care's War Against Sicko

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TWC 2007

Michael Moore explores America's health care system in his documentary Sicko.

Corporate America has long known that the best defense is a good offense. It's no wonder then that the healthcare industry has rallied the troops in recent weeks in anticipation of Michael Moore's newest documentary, Sicko, due out in theaters nationwide on Friday.

Though few people have actually seen Sicko yet, there's been wide-ranging speculation that the film and its maker could be the catalysts Americans need in order to demand reform of their ailing medical care system. With an emphasis on the 47 million uninsured in the U.S., Moore not only presents a chilling assessment of the status quo but goes on to advocate for the socialist approach of Canada, France and Cuba as a more effective alternative. "We're in a battle with these corporations who want to maintain their position," Moore said recently. "They don't want to give an inch on this, and we're out to upset the apple cart."

The healthcare industry is on red alert. Jeff McWaters, CEO of the HMO Amerigroup, has listed the film's June 29 release among the "headline risks" for the industry. Sicko has already sparked heated debate and more is certain to come. "People see Moore as uniquely honest and truthful in a corporate landscape," says Pat Aufderheide, a communications professor at American University. "He has a way of saying the things his audience has already been thinking to themselves and making them seriously consider acting on those thoughts." Both of Moore's first two major films — 1998's Roger & Me, about General Motors, and 2002's Bowling for Columbine. on the gun industry — brought unprecedented attention to their respective topics. And the director achieved a new level of success with his 2004 Bush-bashing hit Fahrenheit 9/11, which marked the tipping point of the popular resentment against the Iraq war.

Moore's current opponents have tried to launch pre-emptive strikes at the director and his moviemaking practices. On June 13, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), which represents leading drugmakers such as Eli Lilly, Merck and GlaxoSmithKline, issued a statement dismissing Moore as "a political activist with a track record for sensationalism." PhRMA went on to say "a review of America's health care system should be balanced, thoughtful and well-researched" before adding, "Unfortunately, you won't get that from Michael Moore." America's Health Insurance Plans, whose members include HMOs Aetna and Cigna, handed its own news releases last week emphasizing the need for "a uniquely American solution." Health Care America, a non-profit financed in part by pharmaceutical and hospital companies, held briefings to document the the long wait-times common to government-run healthcare, such as those run by France and Cuba, and posted videos on its Web site detailing horror stories from Canada's system. "Mr. Moore is not telling the whole story. He plays fast and loose with the facts," says the group's executive director Sarah Berk. "We're here to educate the public on what he has left out."

Moore, meanwhile, has built up vocal support in his corner as well. The director and his producers have hired a team of political operatives to respond to industry attacks, including Chris Lehane, best known for his role as a consultant on the Gore and Kerry presidential campaigns. Moore has held several well-attended press conferences in weeks leading up to the film's release, and publicity for Sicko has included private screening on both Capitol Hill and Wall Street.

The film has also gained the backing of many healthcare labor groups, such as the California Nurses Association (CAN), which aims to place a nurse in each of the 3,000 theaters across the country where Sicko is shown in a campaign called "Scrubs for Sicko." The film is "not just an indictment of an indefensible healthcare industry in the U.S.," says CAN's executive director Rose Ann DeMoro. "It's a rejoinder for those who think we can fix the soulless monster by tinkering with an unconscionable system that puts us further in thrall to those who created the crisis."