Advancing the healthcare debate without the F-word

by Brian Clarey

I was gonna write this column last night, within minutes of walking out of the theater after seeing SiCKO, but all I could see was red, and, in a flash of insight of the stripe the drunks call a “moment of clarity,” I wisely shouldered my laptop in the belief that if I unleashed a profanity-laden tirade, it would give people an excuse to discount my words. And SiCKO did make me mad. Hopping mad, like a rabid Easter bunny on crystal meth. Which, I’m sure, was Michael Moore’s intent. And then I was gonna write it all down this morning, but I had thought about the film all night and by the time I got out of bed my conflagration of rage had cooled to a smoldering disgust. I knew that if I wrote at that time my words would be dismissed as those of a bitter malcontent who, more than likely, hates America. So I ran a mile. I had some coffee and ate a sandwich. I did all the other things I do when I need to cool out. And now I’m ready to try and contribute to a meaningful discussion about health care in the United States. Ahem. I think most of us can agree that there is something wrong with our health care system. Surely each one of us is no more than a couple degrees separated from a health care nightmare – an exorbitant hospital bill, an unnecessary surgery, a pricey list of monthly prescriptions, a chronic ailment or necessary procedure not covered by insurance, insurmountable co-pays that wipe out a family’s finances, uninsured and uninsurable individuals, procedures and treatments foregone because of inability to pay for them that result in serious problems or, sometimes, death. Each one of us, perhaps, save for the 5 percent of us who control 80 percent of our nation’s wealth. Still, I hope we all believe that this shouldn’t be. I hope we all think that it is wrong for a wife to lose her husband and a boy to lose his father, as happened to the family of Tracy Pierce of Kansas City, Mo. because the insurance company would not approve a bone marrow transplant to treat his kidney cancer. I hope we all think it is wrong when an unfortunate series of health crises besets an older couple, wiping out everything they spent their lives building and forcing them to move in with their children, as happened to Colorado newspaper columnist Donna Smith and her husband Larry. Both cases were featured in Moore’s film. I hope we all understand that health care – in a wealthy country like ours, anyway – should not be a privilege but a right, and one we defend as vociferously as the right to speak our minds or to have handguns in our homes. I hope everybody sees this as a moral issue, not merely a matter of class distinction. If Moore’s numbers are to be believed – and according to the websites for Center for Disease Control and the Institute of Medicine, they are – there are 50 million of us without any kind of health care at all, and that 18,000 of us will die this year as a result of inadequate or unattainable health care. That’s a lot of us. And I hope everybody understands the importance of using pronouns like “we” and “us” when speaking about this issue instead of “they” and “them.” Everyone is touched by a health care system that fails to achieve its primary responsibility: to care for our health. This problem belongs to all of us. Disclosure: My family and I are among the 50 million uninsured Americans, though my wife and I both work full time. When factored in with our modest mortgage, excessive daycare costs, the price of feeding three growing children and keeping them in shoes that fit, we had to make a budgetary decision between health insurance or the note on a car that holds three child seats. More immediate concerns won over. Also part of the notorious 50 million: 63-year-old Alex Steele and his wife Annie of High Point. I met them outside the theater after the film, when I was in the first throes of my red, red rage. Alex spent most of his working life with McDonnell Douglass as an engineer, during which time he was covered by the company’s health care plan with Kaiser Permanente. Now approaching their golden years, Alex and Annie have no serious health issues and take no daily prescriptions. Yet Alex says they are unable to obtain affordable health insurance because of their ages. “These doctors have just run stuff into the ground,” he says. “When I was a kid we didn’t have to pay all this.” It’s not entirely the fault of doctors – insurance companies, pharmaceutical concerns, government lobbyists, sympathetic politicians and our litigious society all play a part. And I’m not saying that Michael Moore has created a manifesto, or even a serious piece of journalism that examines the issue from all sides with fairness and balance. But I am saying that he has shed some light on the inherent hypocrisy of the system and brought to life some of its casualties. It is a critical look, however flawed, at a diseased body in its dying throes. And it gets us talking about a serious problem. I implore you to go see SiCKO and think about health care as it exists in American society. Talk about it at work or with your friends. Decide what you think our policy on the health of our citizens should be. And let the healing begin.

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