Sicko’s Critics and the Upside of Hitler

Critics of the movie are hooked on pharmaceutical company payouts and part of a system that is rotten to the marrow and should be put out of its misery

BY Terry J. Allen

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The health care industry is having palpitations over Sicko. “I don’t think Michael Moore set out to make a balanced movie,” said Karen Ignagni, president of the trade group America’s Health Insurance Plans, regurgitating the industry’s key talking point. But truth is not always found in the balanced middle. (“Now, for the other side of Hitler,” “Cannibalism: the pros and cons”; “Sex with children: Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.”)

Not surprisingly, some groups staging responses to Sicko, including the Manhattan Institute, the Heritage Foundation and the Pacific Research Institute, are hooked on pharmaceutical company funding, according to Sourcewatch.

They are part of a system that is rotten to the marrow and should be put out of its, and our, misery.

Health care is not a commodity; it is a human right that should be apportioned without regard for accidents of birth, class, sex and race. Of the 46.6 million uninsured Americans, almost one-third (14.1 million) are Latino and almost one in five (7.2 million) are African American. Despite paying 2006 premiums that averaged $4,242 for individuals and $11,480 for families, millions avoid care because of limited coverage and high deductibles; many people stay in miserable jobs and marriages for the sake of the insurance.

Including private insurance companies in health care is like giving a kleptomaniac keys to a jewelry store.

Snout-in-trough politicians and industry flaks warn that excising the profit motive will hurt patients. The titles of recent speeches by Billy Tauzin, head of the trade group PhRMA, tell it all: “Free Market Health Care Solutions Are Best for Patients,” and “Putting Patients First to Keep Health Care in America the Best in the World.”

But Americans don’t get the world’s best care. Leaving aside the poor and some racial minorities (we do), middle-aged, white Americans are much sicker than their English counterparts. More of us tested positive for high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes; more of us self-reported lung disease, cancer and strokes, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, And that is after we spend two times more per capita than the English.

About two dozen countries have longer life expectancy than the United States, according to the World Health Organization. It ranks the U.S. health care system 37th, behind Columbia (22), Saudi Arabia (26) and Dominica (35). Our infant mortality rate is more than twice Japan’s.

The lack of primary and preventative medicine partially explains this dismal picture. Doctors are trained to make quick diagnoses and prescribe pharmaceutical and surgical fixes; they are poorly compensated if they take the time to compile histories, evaluate nutrition or provide preventative strategies. Much of their education and income is funneled through Big Pharma. And the industry-controlled system does little to assess the relationship between environmental toxins and conditions such as asthma, cancer, allergies, heart problems and other illnesses that generate billions for drug companies, hospitals and device manufacturers.

The health care industry is a powerful economic force in every state and the biggest lobby in Washington, with influence peddling expenditures at the national level alone exceeding $2.2 billion for the past decade.

The 18 announced or exploring presidential candidates reaped $12.8 million in health care contributions since 1989, according to a study based on data from the Center for Responsive Politics. Contributions in the first quarter of 2007 accounted for almost 30 percent of that amount: Nearly half of that $3.7 million went to just two candidates, Hillary Clinton (23 percent) and Mitt Romney (22 percent); next came Barack Obama (15 percent), John McCain and Rudy Giuliani (11 percent), and John Edwards (6 percent).

These expenditures are chump change. Pharmaceutical industry profits climbed from $64.4 billion in 2002 to $94.8 billion in 2006. During the same period, insurance companies’ profits more than doubled from $20.8 billion to $57.5 billion.

Some hospitals, too, are blooming with fiscal health. Record aggregate profits reached $26.3 billion in 2004, thanks in part to the astronomical markups they charge patients. The top 40 hospitals added 2,319 percent on drugs, 5,090 percent on medical supplies, and 1,073 percent on operating room charges.

The 20 largest HMOs sucked in $10.8 billion in profits in 2004, with 19 percent for overhead verses 1 percent in the non-profit Canadian national health insurance program.

While these figures are enough to sicken anyone, the number that really scares the health care industry is the percent of Americans who prefer not just universal coverage, but a single-payer government-run system that cuts out private insurance. An ABC News/Washington Post poll put the figure at 62 percent.

You want balance? Balance this: The right of corporations to profit from illness against the right of every person to decent health care.

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Terry J. Allen, an In These Times senior editor, has written the magazine's monthly investigative health and science column since 2006.

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