The New York Times
May 22, 2007
Film Offers New Talking Points in Health Care Debate
Michael Moore’s documentary “Sicko” had its first showing at the Cannes Film Festival on Saturday
and received many favorable reviews. It will be released in the United States on June 29.
By MILT FREUDENHEIM and LIZA KLAUSSMANN
Few of them may become Michael Moore fans. But some insurance industry officials and health policy experts acknowledged yesterday that the film documentary “Sicko,” Mr. Moore’s indictment of health care in this country, taps into widespread public concern that the system does not work for millions of Americans.
The movie, which had its first showing at the Cannes Film Festival on Saturday and received many favorable reviews, presents a series of heart-rending anecdotes meant to illustrate systemic failures and foul-ups under the nation’s insurance industry — even if many of the major pieces of evidence are ones that have been widely reported elsewhere and in some cases date back 20 years.
The film, which will be released in this country on June 29 after a well-calculated publicity campaign by Mr. Moore, is arriving as health care has become the leading domestic policy concern in many national polls, second only to the Iraq war. Although they have not had a chance to see the film yet, many American health care and insurance industry experts have been tracking it intently, based on media reports.
Without commenting on the movie’s central criticisms of the insurance system, the head of America’s Health Insurance Plans, a trade group in Washington, suggested that discussion of the movie could advance the industry’s interest in obtaining more government money for people who do not have insurance.
“If the movie results in members of Congress and governors putting this issue squarely on the table as the No. 1 priority, we will be part of that discussion and will welcome it,” said Karen Ignagni, president of the health plans group.
Uwe E. Reinhardt, a health economist at Princeton, said that based on reviews, the movie is “exaggerated, biting, unfair,” but he added that a number of recent books and reports by academic experts had been at least as critical.
He cited “Redefining Health Care,” a book by Michael E. Porter, a Harvard Business School professor, and Elizabeth Teisberg, an associate professor at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, along with “Who Killed Health Care?” by Regina Herzlinger, also at the Harvard Business School.
“My point is we are on the verge of a populist reaction to the health system,” Professor Reinhardt said. “The American people are on the point of being fed up.”
Perhaps not coincidentally on Sunday, “60 Minutes,” the CBS television magazine show, took up a scandal that is part of Mr. Moore’s film — and has been well chronicled in The Los Angeles Times — about the abandonment by Los Angeles hospitals of homeless patients after they have received medical treatment.
Last week, Kaiser Permanente, the nation’s largest nonprofit health insurer, settled criminal and civil lawsuits, agreeing to establish new rules for discharging such patients, and to pay $55,000 in fines and to cover the city attorney’s investigative costs. Kaiser will also contribute $500,000 to help the homeless with follow-up care and other services.
Another scene in “Sicko” shows a clip of Congressional testimony given in 1996 by Dr. Linda Peeno, a former medical reviewer for the health insurer Humana, who said that her job was to save the company money. “I denied a man a necessary operation,” she testified, referring to a ruling she had made in 1987. Ms. Peeno’s testimony has been widely recounted over the years.
A Humana spokesman, Thomas Noland, said that the cased cited by Dr. Peeno involved whether a man in a hospital in Las Vegas had coverage that would pay for a heart transplant. Dr. Peeno had said “correctly that it did not cover heart transplants,” Mr. Noland said.
Stuart Altman, a health policy expert at Brandeis University, acknowledged that accounts of insurance companies denying care “make people furious.” But he questioned whether “Sicko,” even if it became a box-office hit, would have any true impact on health care policy.
“Most Americans never see these problems,” said Professor Altman, who is dean of the Heller Graduate School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis. “Most are reasonably healthy to begin with,” he said. “And even those that have some problems have this strong fear that they would be the loser” in a different system, run by the government, he said.
“They hate the system — it’s too expensive — but we have been hearing about these things for 35 years,” Professor Altman said. “Unless we have a meltdown which affects the middle class — that is nowhere near happening — we will not be willing to fundamentally restructure the system.”
Meanwhile, in Cannes yesterday Mr. Moore discussed the next steps for “Sicko” in a meeting of nearly a dozen people. Participants included Harvey Weinstein, the movie executive whose company financed the film and will market and help distribute it, and Chris Lehane, a former political adviser in the Clinton White House who is serving as the movie’s spokesman.
To ride the Cannes momentum ahead of the film’s United States release, the team plans to start running newspaper advertisements superimposing health insurer logos on tombstones and to use the michaelmoore.com Web to solicit whistle-blowers from the ranks of insurance company employees.
In a half-joking conversation, it emerged that Mr. Weinstein, a supporter of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, had tried to persuade Mr. Moore to revise the film’s depiction of Mrs. Clinton.
The early part of the film unrolls as a virtual love letter to Mrs. Clinton, chronicling her efforts as first lady to stage an overhaul of the health care system. But the tone changes as the film proceeds, lumping her among the members of Congress who, “Sicko” contends, are financially beholden to insurers.
Mr. Weinstein “just wanted me to leave in the bit where she was young and sexy,” said Mr. Moore, referring to the scenes of Mrs. Clinton as first lady, making clear that he had declined to make the cuts.
“I just felt the film was over, you know, by about 30 seconds,” Mr. Weinstein said, laughing. “It’s not because I support her.”
The conversation turned to whether Mr. Moore planned to back any of the current proposals for health care reform, or whether he would come up with his own plan. Some suggested that he stick to his position that the insurance companies be done away with, replaced by national universal health care system.
“Let’s be honest, no one’s going to support dismantling the private health care system,” Mr. Moore replied. “I don’t think the insurance companies are just going to give up the profit motivation.”
Liza Klaussmann reported from Cannes, France.
Correction: May 24, 2007
An article in Business Day on Tuesday about the health care industry’s perception of Michael Moore’s new movie, “Sicko,” misstated the educational affiliation of Elizabeth Teisberg, the co-author of a recent book, “Redefining Health Care.” She is an associate professor at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, not an economist at Stanford University.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company