When Maria Watanabe started suffering blackouts, chronic headaches, blurred vision, vomiting and nosebleeds, she was terrified. Her 38-year-old cousin had died of a brain tumor months earlier and Watanabe worried she might suffer the same fate. Yet when Watanabe sought an appointment with an ophthalmologist – who would have been able to diagnose a potential brain tumor – her request was denied by Blue Shield. A month later, her request for an MRI was also denied, as was a consultation with a neurologist. Her symptoms persisted as Blue Shield repeatedly denied her the treatment she needed.
While traveling in Japan weeks later, Watanabe fell ill. She had an MRI scan in Japan, which confirmed that she did indeed have a brain tumor and that a cyst had formed around it, blocking the flow of cerebral fluid and creating a buildup of pressure within Watanabe’s skull. Watanabe flew back to the United States to have emergency surgery to drain the cyst surrounding the tumor. Following the surgery, MRI scans revealed that the tumor remained. To this day, Watanabe has not recovered fully. She is still unable to regain her balance; she still suffers from headaches.
Watanabe’s plight is just one example of how the profit motive has overtaken the Hippocratic oath. In his latest film “SiCKO,” writer and producer Michael Moore confronts the American healthcare industry and the politicians they own. He uses dozens of examples like Watanabe, where health insurance companies have denied their clients essential services simply to boost their profit margins.
Moore discovers that groups of insurance investigators are often assigned to a single patient’s medical file. Investigators would then scrutinize every last page of a patient’s medical record, searching for an omission or error that would allow the insurance agency to either cancel existing insurance coverage or deny an application.
After examining this and other cases, Moore visits and reviews the nationalized healthcare systems in Britain and France. He interviews a London doctor who earns $500,000 per year and receives bonuses for promoting a healthy life regimen to his patients. In France, he drives with one of many doctors kept on full-time house-call duty.
Moore dissects the common evils of socialized medicine, namely that the system keeps patients from choosing their own doctors and hospitals. This critique misses the larger point, that the priority of both the British and French health care systems are to provide comprehensive care for all citizens rather than find any plausible excuse to deny patients the aid they need.
The most evocative moment of the film comes when Moore ferries a group of ailing volunteers from Ground Zero to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba – the one place on American soil where accused Al-Qaeda terrorists enjoy better health care than millions of American citizens. Upon arriving at the port entrance, Moore pleads by megaphone, asking that they only seek the same level of care as the evil-doers.
In previous films, Moore has often received an overwhelming amount of criticism from the right. Yet regardless of political position, SiCKO is bound to strike a nerve with anyone who’s had serious illness within the family and has seen what a bureaucratic mess our free-enterprise healthcare system can be. Governments around the world, both liberal and conservative, have acknowledged the need for universal healthcare for the wellbeing of their citizens; the United States is the only developed nation in the world without it.
SiCKO is a film of intellect, emotion and insight, interwoven with comedy and genuine outrage. And while Moore’s sarcastic comic dialogue plays off the tales of truly tragic human crises, he has also learned to let the issue speak for itself. What makes SiCKO so successful is that the healthcare industry’s position is so indefensible.