Moore and SiCKO Are a Hit at Congress

Personal Health

It's ironic, but outside of hospitals and day care centers, perhaps the best place to acquire some kind of illness on Wednesday in Washington, D.C., was at Michael Moore's press conference on Capitol Hill. The long lines and the sweaty, claustrophobic committee room were emblematic of the enthusiasm that Moore's appearance and SiCKO, his new film on the decrepit state of U.S. health care, have generated both in Washington and around the country.

Behind the podium from which Moore and influential House Democrats spoke and answered questions, an array of sign-wielding activists stood along the back wall. Facing them from the other side of the room, women from the group Code Pink lofted a large, painted sign reading, "Healthcare now, for all." At one point, a security officer approached them about lowering the banner. His face, though, showed a reluctance to scold a group of people who were exercised about a worthy cause. He gave them a thumbs up.

Such was the atmosphere in the committee room, a vibrancy that offset the doleful stories -- about patients dying and insurance companies fleecing -- that were fired off in rapid succession by members of Congress at the podium. It's no surprise that SiCKO features many similar stories -- matched, of course, with the faces of patients themselves, many of whom died for lacking health insurance, and others who died despite it.

The film, characterized by Moore's usual mix of wry humor contrasted sharply with deeply somber personal narratives, traces the health care crisis back to the early 1970s when Richard Nixon, under pressure from Edgar Kaiser, helped launch the Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) system. That system, one of the largest in the world of for-profit medicine, is the prime cause, according to Moore and many others, of phenomena like uninsurance, underinsurance, and adverse selection that have caused our health care standards to topple well below similarly wealthy nations, including France, Germany, and Japan, all of which have government-paid universal health care systems. Today, as Moore noted both on Capitol Hill and in his film, there are four health care lobbyists in Washington for every member of Congress.

Perhaps the greatest, and most awkward, part of yesterday's hearing -- the part that most resembled something from a Michael Moore movie -- occurred when Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, spotted Rep. Darryl Issa (R-Calif.) standing quietly in the back of the room. Conyers thanked Issa "for making this a bipartisan issue," and invited him to stand in front of the crowd. Issa gestured in protest, waving his hand back and forth like a cutthroat in front of his neck. It was a losing battle. He was ultimately cowed into standing with Moore and the Democrats anyhow.

When Issa finally spoke, he did so extemporaneously, joking that his scheduler must have somehow forgotten to inform him of this engagement and dodging attempts by Conyers and others to bring him to the D.C. premiere of SiCKO. Though he received a lukewarm welcome, Issa sought the common ground, calling health care a "bipartisan issue," approvingly citing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's health care plan for California, and suggesting that, while the parties "may differ on the specifics," Congress and the president "must take steps toward universal access."

On those specifics, Issa differs wildly from either Schwarzenegger or most Democrats. Schwarzenegger, one of a small handful of governors to bring his state's health rolls anywhere near universality, recently enacted an individual mandate to buy insurance that will cover almost everybody in California. His policy, however, exists on the long line that connects Conyers' single-payer plan to provide Medicare for all and Issa's 2005 plan, which works much more incrementally. It would provide credits to business owners in states where the minimum wage exceeds the federal minimum to secure health insurance for their employees.

Aside from Moore, the loudest applause of the afternoon went to Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who beseeched universal health care activists not to "get in bed with the right wing who means us no good." More poignantly, Conyers compared his efforts on his bill -- H.R. 676 -- to his efforts years ago to make Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday a national holiday. Back then, as today, he told the crowd, many of his colleagues said to him "you have a great idea, but you know you can't win."

Neither Conyers nor Moore sees things that way. And Moore, surpassed perhaps only by Al Gore as the most recognizable activist in America, is advancing his cause in a decidedly un-Gore-like way. Yesterday afternoon, he rented out a theater in Washington's Union Station to hold yet another free screening -- food and drink provided -- for anybody in the city who has a career lobbying on behalf of private health care companies. No word yet on how many people attended.

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