“Who are we?” might be a better (if less jazzy) title for “Sicko,” Michael Moore’s two-hour meditation on the sickly qualities of American health care.
In retrospect, the entire movie seems to be moving toward that plaintive, deceptively simple question. As Moore searches for a definition of our national identity, the question generates remarkable resonance because it transcends so many boundaries and political positions.
In a country so wealthy and seemingly progressive, why should anyone be forced to sacrifice body parts because they can’t pay their medical bills? A man loses his life savings because he has a series of heart attacks. A suffering woman is thrown into the streets because she has nothing. A group of 9/11 survivors fail to get the care they need for various pollution-related problems.
Moore builds his case largely by demonstrating that even Americans who have health insurance are at risk. They can be denied coverage for any number of fine-print reasons, and they can be victims of a quota system. Some agents are told to turn down a percentage of requests no matter what the reasons. As for the 47 million Americans who have no health insurance, good luck.
He also shows, in vivid and refreshing detail, how other countries deal with the problem. In France and England, coverage is virtually free for all citizens. In Cuba, three 9/11 survivors approach Guantanamo Bay (figuring that detainees get the best health care) and finally find relief at an astonishingly receptive Havana hospital.
Moore doesn’t say a lot about taxes, and he concedes that Canada has a poor reputation because of long waits for medical appointments. But he rounds up plenty of Canadians who couldn’t be happier with their system. Clearly, many other countries have found a solution that works far better than the crippled — and sometimes literally crippling — U.S. system.
It’s this human toll that makes the strongest impression. As he did in “Fahrenheit 9/11” and his Oscar-winning “Bowling for Columbine,” Moore connects the dots by showing the impact of political decisions on individual lives. When a man who has lost two fingertips is told that he will have to come up with $12,000 to restore one of them and $60,000 for the other, he uses his partially mutilated hand to illustrate the choice he was forced to make.
What comes through loud and clear is the emphasis on dollars in the current American system, which Moore traces back to President Nixon. Moore claims his Web site was flooded with bureaucratic horror stories once he announced his intentions for “Sicko,” and many of them involved bankruptcy or battles with insurance companies.
In foreign countries, he insists, money is simply not allowed to become part of the equation where health is concerned. The emphasis is on treating citizens equally, regardless of the seriousness of their illnesses or injuries.
The situation in other countries may not be quite as uncomplicated as Moore claims. But he does suggest that the entire system is healthier when payment is not required or expected. And who could argue with that?