Michael Moore's latest movie "Sicko" arouses a lot of different responses. We finally watched it because several friends recommended it...and said it made them really mad. I found it heart-rending, a real tear-jerker. It wasn't so much the stories of illness leading to bankruptcies and homelessness, but the heartwarming side, when Cuban doctors treat 9/11 rescue workers who couldn't get American health care because they were EMTs who volunteered at ground zero. Because they were no one's employees, no agency would provide health insurance coverage or take responsibility for health conditions resulting from their rescue work.
There are also funny moments, as when residents of France explain that American corporations operating there have to follow French law in terms of health related issues; American citizens have a better deal there than here. There are also inspiring moments as when we hear that after W.W.II, England realized they could invest in armaments and killing or a national health care system.
The point of the film, however, wasn't that people without insurance are at risk; it was that people with insurance may not be as safe as they believe they are. Many health insurance plans are run by for-profit organizations and if they can find a loophole that will allow them not to pay for your medical treatment, they've figured out how to make more money. Even my favorite health maintenance organization, Kaiser Permanente, comes under Moore's gun as just as rapacious as the usual insurance suspects, Aetna and Humana.
The movie makes a powerful case that we're being screwed (again) and that big profits are to be made by keeping us convinced there's nothing we can do. But there is something we can do and that's pressure our Congressional representatives to pass legislation that provides a coordinated national approach to our health care. (I almost said system, but it's not that systematic.) A simple, and less controversial, first step would be to regulate drug prices, just like we regulate electricity prices.
When you watch a movie on DVD you get more than you'd get in the theater. In this case, it's an additional hour of information and interviews with experts such as Dr. Marcia Angell, Senior Lecturer at Harvard Medical School, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, and author of "The Truth about the Drug Companies." She explains that in the U.S., unlike in other "advanced" nations, drug companies can charge whatever the market will bear, especially when the medicine is patented and therefore there are no generic versions. The patents can be renewed, keeping the production formulas locked up, by tweaking the ingredients a little - a bit like adding tail fins or extra chrome to a 1950s Chevrolet. If it's a necessity, why should the purveyor be allowed to charge sky-high prices? Why should people have to choose between buying medicine or buying food or kids' school clothes or paying the mortgage?
I remember when my dad, basically living on Social Security, had been prescribed a once-a-day pill and each pill cost a dollar. Luckily a new physician evaluated his medication schedule and realized that pill was unnecessary. If my dad were alive today, he'd have to be enrolled in a drug insurance plan. My husband, now receiving Social Security, shopped around to find the least expensive plan, which costs $265 a year. His single medication would cost $66/year without the plan and with the plan costs $20/year. When you do the math, it shows he'd save $219/year if he didn't have the plan, but there's a catch: The pharmaceutical and insurance lobbyists made sure they'd make money off you whether or not you need their services. Federal legislation requires you to buy drug insurance as soon as you sign up for Medicare; if you don't, you'll pay a hefty penalty later if you do need drug insurance. In gangster movies, this is called extortion: Pay us money now to protect yourself from what we'll do to you later if you don't.
Pay attention baby boomers! This road show is coming your way. And, if you think AARP is going to lobby effectively on your behalf, think again. AARP sends me junk mail offers of this or that kind of insurance repeatedly every month. As one skeptic put it, they're in the insurance business themselves, at least to the extent they put their name on insurance programs produced and serviced by, you guessed it, the same for-profit insurance companies that are gouging everyone else.
Victoria Stoppiello is a freelance writer who will be reading two of her commercial fishing related essays Saturday night at this year's Fisher Poets Gathering in Astoria.