Political Hay

Placebo Propaganda

Sicko scores some points against HMO's. Otherwise, it's as potent as sweetened cough drops.

By 6.26.07

It is hardly news to point out that Michael Moore is a very talented filmmaker. Sicko only confirms this: Moore takes a potentially very dry subject like health care and makes it entertaining. Unfortunately, such a film in the hands of as skilled a propagandist as Moore is almost certain to mislead its audience. On that score, Sicko does not disappoint.

Having seen Sicko on Saturday, here are my thoughts in no particular order:

What I Liked: Moore does a big service by exploring the lengths to which health insurance companies will go to avoid paying for care, a serious problem in our system. Even though I suspect Moore has not given us the full story on some of the cases he examines, those cases are nevertheless heart wrenching and it is clear that insurance companies, especially health maintenance organizations (HMOs), treat some of their customers inhumanely.

From there, though, it's all down hill. Moore diagnosis of the problem -- the profit motive -- is wrong. Within the next week I'm going to pen an article exclusively about profit and health care since it is an issue that is popular among the left. Suffice to say for now that many other insurance industries -- homeowners, auto, life -- also make a profit and there aren't anywhere near the problems that there are in the health insurance industry. The difference is that there is far more government involvement in the health insurance industry, which often puts making a profit and providing good coverage at odds.

Is This Movie About Health Care Or...: At points in the film it seems that Moore is more interested in bashing America for not having as generous a welfare system as Europe's than focusing on health care specifically. For example, he gushes about all of the great stuff that France has, such as free university education, free day care, government-mandated education, and government-mandated paid maternity leave. He interviews a middle-class woman with a new baby. Not only does France give her much longer maternity leave than we have in the U.S., the French government provides her with a nanny for up to four hours a day. She will, we are informed, help the mother cook dinner and, to Moore's great delight, do her laundry for her. Do you suppose that the U.S. will become more or less anti-French when it becomes common knowledge that the government in France does their citizens' laundry?

Moore continues in this vein with a rather odd interview with a British chap who suggests that the reason we don't have such services in the U.S. is that the "ruling class" here keeps the people afraid of the government, and people who are afraid, especially the poor, don't vote. If they did, the U.S. would have a far larger welfare state. Someone should tell Moore that indulging Chomsky-ite fantasies doesn't make his movies any more credible.

The Contradictions: Also undermining Sicko's credibility is the number of times Moore shoots himself in the foot. Some of it is small potatoes. For example, to mock Americans' fear of socialized medicine, Moore points out that a number of our systems are socialized, such as our school system. But later, Moore chastises the state of our schools by pointing out that most public school graduates cannot find Great Britain on a map.

Other contradictions are more serious. Sicko indicts our system of private sector insurance by showing the ugly side of HMOs. Later, however, it notes that our system of HMOs is largely the result of Richard Nixon's 1973 HMO Act. In other words, the growth of HMOs are not the natural outcome of private sector insurance but the spawn government policy. Nor does this instance of government bungling do much to bolster his case for a government takeover of our health care system.

Other contradictions are less glaring but no less serious. After condemning HMOs, Sicko laments the failure of Hillary Clinton to establish a system of universal health insurance in the U.S. during the early 1990s. But if HMOs are so bad, why would Moore be so sympathetic to HillaryCare? After all, Clinton's plan was dubbed "managed competition" because it would have put Americans in one of a number of heavily regulated HMOs. However, Moore leaves that fact about HillaryCare out of Sicko, so perhaps that's more a case of deception than a contradiction.

The Deceit: I sure hope Moore got paid by the governments of Canada, France, and the United Kingdom for the romantic way he portrays their health care systems. Moore plays a montage of American commentators claiming that the Canadian system has waiting lists for surgery. After his visit to Canada, Moore claims that "what we've been told about Canada is just not true." But his "investigation" into the Canadian system involved chatting with some of his Canadian relatives, interviewing one man who had surgery on his elbow, and visiting a hospital emergency room. He did much the same for the United Kingdom. Clearly he didn't spend much time looking for people who had spent time on waiting lists, although a bit of searching on the Internet would have been sufficient.

As for France, Moore spends all of his time interviewing people who seem to be largely drawn from France's upper-middle class. No doubt the government services they receive are reasonably good. But one wonders if he might have found something different had he spent time in one of France's Muslim ghettos. Nor did he spend any time looking at how the breakdown of France's health care system contributed to the nearly 15,000 deaths from a heat wave in August 2003.

The Shameful: Moore should be ashamed of his decision to take ill and desperate Americans to Guantanamo and then Havana, Cuba. Showing Americans getting treatment at what was clearly a Potemkin hospital in Havana was despicable. Uncle Fidel must have been smiling as he recovers from the surgery that was initially botched by his Cuban doctors. If Moore had any decency, he would have compared the medical treatment that America gives the prisoners at Guantanamo with the treatment political prisoners in Castro's gulags receive. One such prisoner, Guido Sigler Amaya, is in pretty bad shape:

Due to the inhumane prison conditions he is forced to endure Guido is suffering from more than ten serious illnesses: oral infection with bleeding sores on his gums and tongue, hypertension, renal and duodenal cysts, chronic gastritis and migraines, dilatation of the aorta, partial loss of vision, inflamed prostate, premature aging, excessive weight loss, difficulty in ambulation, dehydration, thrombosed hemorrhoids with one surgical intervention and more planned.

Alas, that would have undermined that Bash-America-First theme of Sicko.

Some conservatives are worried that Sicko will move us in the direction of socialized medicine. I doubt it. While Sicko may inform the health care debate in this country for the next month or so, it will probably have about as much impact on our health care system as Fahrenheit 9/11 had on the 2004 election -- which is to say, not much. Through contacts in the film industry, conservative author Byron York discovered that Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 had outperformed expectations in "Blue America" areas like San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City, but underperformed in "Red America" areas like the Midwest. Chances are, Moore's new love affair with big government will suffer a similar fate. Furthermore, its timing leaves something to be desired, being released over a year before the next presidential election, when it might have had a much bigger effect.

Besides, with the exception of some folks on the left, most Americans probably realize by now that Moore is not really a documentary maker. He's just a propagandist.

David Hogberg is a Washington writer and host of the website Health Hog.

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David Hogberg is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.  Follow David Hogberg on Twitter.