Health reformers to piggyback on ‘Sicko’;

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Michael Moore’s blast at medical care is hitting as U.S. seems ripe for changes

San Francisco Chronicle

Michael Moore couldn’t have scheduled the release of his movie “Sicko” — an indictment of the U.S. health care system — at a more opportune time.

The film, which opens in theaters in the United States on June 29, arrives as many states, including California, have introduced health care reform proposals. In polls, health care routinely ranks among the public’s top domestic concerns. Health care reform is also expected to be an important theme in the presidential campaign for 2008.

Advocates already are trying to capitalize on the documentary, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in France last week, to further their political agendas.

“From the perspective of the health care reform movement, a high-profile representation of what patients commonly experience at the hands of insurers certainly adds momentum to the effort for true reform, both in California and across the country,” said Jerry Flanagan, health advocate for the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, based in Santa Monica.

The California Nurses Association and its national arm plans to host private premiere parties around the country and use the film’s release to distribute materials to audience members to support the union’s preferred reform models. The group, which opposes Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s plan, supports the state and national single-payer proposals by state Sen. Sheila Kuehl, D-Santa Monica, and Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich.

“Obviously, we’re looking at this as an opportunity to push the agenda in terms of comprehensive health reform,” said Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the nurses association. DeMoro was one of about 50 people who attended a screening a few days before its premiere in Cannes.

“I think it will probably do more for the health care reform movement than “(An) Inconvenient Truth” will do for global warming,” she said.

A political strategist hired by the film’s producer said he expects many more groups nationwide to use the film to advance their agendas.

“It’s serving as a call for action,” said Chris Lehane, a former consultant to President Bill Clinton. Lehane said Moore aims to promote universal coverage, get rid of the private insurance industry and regulate pharmaceutical companies.

While few health experts have seen the film, many have read media reports about “Sicko” and are familiar with the filmmaker’s provocative style in earlier films such as “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “Bowling for Columbine.”

In “Sicko,” Moore takes on the system through heath care horror stories, such as the tale of an uninsured man who lost two fingers in an accident. Hospital officials told him it would cost $12,000 to reattach his ring finger and $60,000 for his middle finger.

There are images of patients dumped back on the streets of Los Angeles by local hospitals. In the most controversial segment, Moore takes Sept. 11 workers with respiratory problems to Cuba to receive care that eluded them at home. And he takes on politicians who accept millions from insurers and drug manufacturers.

Moore’s team approached a number of California health and consumer groups, including the nurses association, the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights and Health Access California, for individual stories about patients who were denied care or otherwise suffered at the hands of insurers, pharmaceutical companies or other health business interests.

“Rumor is they literally had hundreds, if not thousands, of stories to go through,” said Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access California, a consumer advocacy group.

Wright, whose group supports universal health care, said he hopes the movie draws attention to insurance industry practices that should be reformed or made illegal. For example, he pointed to lawsuits against Blue Cross of California and other insurers by consumers who were retroactively denied coverage after submitting claims.

Wright and other health experts expect the film to at least draw more national attention to the problems Americans have getting and paying for care.

“People know there’s a problem in the health care system, but most people don’t talk about it over dinner,” he said. “This (film) will engender those conversations around the country.”

Moore’s technique of portraying certain corporate or political entities as evil, as demonstrated in his earlier films, could mask some of the subtleties of a complex problem like health care, said Dr. Maren Grainger-Monsen, a filmmaker in residence at Stanford University‘s Center for Biomedical Ethics.

“His work, in general, is provocative and inflammatory, but he does a good job in getting these topics in the public and getting people to talk about them,” Grainger-Monsen said. “The problem is he often oversimplifies the issue.”

Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the drug industry’s trade group, issued a press release earlier this month that discredited Moore’s filmmaking ability.

“A review of America’s health care system should be balanced, thoughtful and well-researched to pin down what works and what needs to be improved,” said Ken Johnson, the group’s senior vice president, in the statement. “You won’t get that from Michael Moore.”

The health insurance industry’s trade group, America’s Health Insurance Plans, said the film could bring attention to the more than 46 million Americans who don’t have health insurance.

“If, by making this movie, Michael Moore begins a conversation about the importance of getting all Americans covered, we agree with that,” said Karen Ignagni, president of the insurers’ group, adding that she had not seen the film.

Several prominent state health proposals, including ones in Massachusetts and California, have provisions that require individuals to obtain health insurance and offer government money to subsidize coverage for the poor. Proponents of a nationalized or single-payer plan have criticized reform plans that increase members for insurers.

According to media reports, the American health care system as portrayed by Moore fares poorly when compared with those of other countries, such as Canada, France and Great Britain.

Ignagni said she does not believe Americans would want the systems offered in those countries. “I don’t think people in the United States are going to be comfortable standing in line waiting to get elective surgery for almost a year,” Ignagni said.

Drew Altman, president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, questioned whether the film will really make an impact on health care reform.

Altman, who has not seen the film, said by the time needed legislation occurs on a national level the film could be long forgotten.

“The key question is how much the presidential candidates make health reform the focus of their presidential campaigns,” he said.

Consumer Watchdog
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