Commentary

Let Go of the Status Quo

First, Mike, thank you for inviting me to the premiere of your new movie Sicko — especially since you knew I probably would criticize it. Of course, we both know that’s exactly why you invited me. You knew that as a libertarian, I would disapprove of your proposal for socialized medicine, and that my criticism would bring added press attention to Sicko for its nationwide release last weekend.

I want you to know that I’ve held up my end of the bargain. I’ve criticized Sicko in whatever medium I could: from blog posts and podcasts to USA Today and the New York Times. And I haven’t held back. In one review, I even wrote, “from a policy standpoint — and I say this more in sadness than in anger — Sicko was so breathtaking a specimen of ignorant propaganda that it would make Pravda blush.” You just can’t buy that kind of press.

I have to say, by making such a one-sided movie, you certainly made my job easier. For example, you show how greedy insurance companies deny medical care to American patients. But you ignore the fact that power-hungry politicians do the same thing to patients in Canada, Great Britain, France, and Cuba — they just call it “rationing by waiting.”

The wait to see a dentist in Britain’s National Health Service is so long, some Britons resort to pulling their own teeth. A seriously ill Canadian referred to a specialist on January 1 will likely celebrate Cinco de Mayo before he receives treatment. Even Canada’s Supreme Court admits, “patients die as a result of waiting lists for public health care.”

Why were those stories omitted from your depiction of socialized medicine? Had you shown that side of the story, maybe the Canadian critics at the Cannes Film Festival wouldn’t have given you such a grilling.

You extol the virtues of France’s economic system, which seems to have socialized everything right down to laundry service. But you never tell your audience that taxes in France are 50% higher than in America, or that the French unemployment rate is double the American rate.

For the record, Mike, Sicko has a wonderful sense of humor. It exposes the silliness of our ongoing embargo of Cuba. And in the notes I took during the film — I know, I’m such a nerd — I actually wrote, “Thank god M.M. is telling these stories” about the insane aspects of America’s health care system.

It is insane that insurance companies have so much say over what is “medically necessary.” But why do you never mention — or don’t you know — that the American government gives that power to insurance companies by imposing a tax penalty on insurance that allows patients more control over those decisions?

It is insane that September 11 rescue workers had so much difficulty getting medical attention. At the premiere, I spoke with Reggie Cervantes, John Graham, and Bill Maher — the Ground Zero rescue workers you took to Cuba for medical care — as well as two other rescue workers. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to thank them in person.

All five of those rescue workers told me that they had health insurance on September 11, but lost their insurance when they lost their jobs.

Why didn’t you tell your audience that the American government was largely responsible for that? After all, it is Congress that ties health insurance to employment by imposing a tax penalty on insurance that actually stays with you when you lose your job. If we got rid of those stupid tax penalties, people like Ms. Cervantes and Messrs. Graham and Maher could get coverage that sticks with them through the rough times.

You’re also correct that the health care industry has a lot of influence in Washington. But what do you expect? Congress directly controls almost half of our health care spending and indirectly controls the rest.

With so many health care decisions being made by Congress, is it any wonder that for the past 10 years the health care industry has spent more money on lobbying than has any other industry?

The only way to reduce the industry’s influence is to take those decisions away from Congress and return them to the people.

When we spoke at the premiere, you apologized for leaving some footage of me on the cutting room floor, and suggested that we get together sometime to discuss health care reform. I’ll forgive you for the former if you’ll make good on the latter.

We may not agree on everything, but we agree that the status quo has got to go.

Michael F. Cannon is director of health policy studies at the Cato Institute and coauthor of Healthy Competition: What’s Holding Back Health Care and How to Free It.