Special Report

Sicko of the Week

Michael Moore speaks out. He wants profit removed from medicine, meaning a return to Soviet-style health care -- and Washington is all ears.

By 6.22.07

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WASHINGTON -- On Wednesday, Michael Moore held a special screening of Sicko for health care lobbyists in D.C. at the Phoenix Theaters at Union Station. I and other members of the media tried to get into the screening, but Moore kept us out, saying that it was only for lobbyists. That left the screening with an audience of twenty.

Nevertheless, at the press conference just beforehand, Moore was entertaining. The folks from the feminist anti-war group Code Pink showed up and chanted, "Health Care Not Warfare!" One of the ushers asked them to stop, since it would disturb the people who were watching movies in the other theaters. I found that a bit ironic since the theaters at Union Station attract the sort of clientele that doesn't know how to shut up (or turn off its cell phones) during a movie.

Anyway, Moore made a number of comments during his press conference that laid out much of the left-wing case for government-run health care. Since I am, at present, unable to give you my review of the movie, I will instead comment on some of his remarks:

1. "Remove private health insurance from the equation. There is no room for it in an ethical and human society."

That begs the question, how humane and ethical are societies that have no private health insurance? We only have to look north to Canada to answer that question. People end up on waiting lists for surgery, where they suffer considerable anxiety and pain, and sometimes die. Word has it Moore's documentary leaves out those details in its examination of Canada. Perhaps we need to raise the question of what makes an ethical and humane filmmaker?

2. "I favor the removal of private health insurance companies from this country. I don't believe that there is room for them in the equation. When you are talking about people's health, you should never have to worry about profit."

One sees this anti-profit argument a lot on the left. I have to wonder, does the left have the slightest clue about the function of profit in a free market? (I know, that's a rhetorical question.) Profit is what drives producers to provide goods and services at a lower price while also improving quality. Profit also acts as a "signal" to producers, letting them know where to invest their resources. Products and services that people find more useful tend to yield higher profits, incentivizing producers to put more resources into them. Without profits, doctors and other providers won't know which services patients find most useful, pharmaceutical companies won't know which drugs are most effective, and insurance companies won't know which insurance products are most desired.

3. "I believe that pharmaceutical companies need to be regulated like a public utility. We need medicine, but we need government control and regulation, so that the medicine is affordable for everyone, so that we are producing the right medicines, so that we are producing safe medicines."

Someone who makes such a remark must know next to nothing about the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA's regulatory process for new drug approval averages eight-to-ten years. That adds a huge cost to new drugs. We need to find ways to reduce this regulatory burden. Moore wants to increase it. Anyone who believes that will make medicine more affordable, or that government will be able to figure out how to produce the "right medicine," please purchase a one-way ticket to Fantasyland.

4. "Forty-five years ago, 30 pharmaceutical companies were working on cures and vaccines. Today there are five. You need to get back to working on the cures and vaccines. Once you cure something, the person doesn't need to take a pill for the next forty years."

There are two main reasons why there are so few vaccine makers today. First, the trial lawyers began suing vaccine makers in the 1980s, subjecting the industry to huge liabilities and making vaccine production less profitable. Second, in the early 1990s the federal government got into the vaccine purchasing business with the Vaccines for Children program. This program buys massive quantities of vaccines to distribute to children. But over time the government has pushed down the price it pays for vaccines, making them less profitable, thereby driving more companies out of the vaccine business. Moore wants you to think that the reason for fewer vaccine makers is that pharmaceutical companies aren't compassionate enough. The real problem is that trial lawyers and government have taken much of the profit out of it.

5. "I want [the American people] to demand that candidates of both parties come forth with specific health care proposals that will guarantee health insurance for all Americans and profit not be involved in it. I hope the people support John Conyers' bill, HR 676, in Congress right now. I think all the polls show that health care is the number one domestic issue right now....My general hope is that we have a free, universal health care system for all Americans and that no private company acts as a middleman to determine whether someone gets care."

Two points on this comment. First, I added the italics to show that Moore makes the common mistake of conflating health care and health insurance. Health care is the treatment we receive to diagnose and cure illness. Health insurance is a way of paying for health care. Having universal health insurance does not guarantee universal health care. Most systems that have universal health insurance ration care by implementing waiting lists and canceling surgeries. In short, universal health insurance leads to very restricted access to health care. (For a more extended discussion of this, go here.)

Second, clearly Moore does not like the idea of a private insurance company deciding whether someone gets care (and neither do I). But Moore wants to move us to a government-run system. What he won't tell you is that under such a system, the government will decide whether or not you get care. In Britain, smokers are to be denied surgery if they do not quit smoking four weeks before surgery. In New Zealand, the government recommended that patients aged 75 and over be denied kidney dialysis. Switching to a government-run health care system does not eliminate the denial of treatment; it just changes the entity that does it.

Will Sicko be any more illuminating than Moore's press conference? I'm eager to find out. Hopefully I'll be able to get a sneak peek of the film over the weekend and give you a review on Monday.

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.