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SiCKO Part Three: More on Michael Moore’s Important Documentary

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When I was in China this summer, I began a conversation with our group and our Chinese guide. We compared health care in China with that of the US. Most of my fellow travelers were Canadians, Brits, and Australians, with a few Scandinavians tossed in for good measure.

All expressed disbelief that Americans continued to endure their health system.

I was telling our guide about Bill McGuire, the CEO of UnitedHealth Group, who personally earned for himself three billion dollars, essentially by creating a company that profited by denying health care benefits to its members. (That’s how health insurance companies make money, as you know if you read our previous health tip.)

I asked how McGuire’s actions would be regarded in China.

Without batting an eyelash, our guide replied that the government would execute him for placing his personal comforts over the well-being of the people.

“Execute him?” I stammered, thinking to myself: well, that would certainly send a message to the insurance industry.

What I learned from my fellow travelers, and what Michael Moore emphasizes in his important new movie SiCKO, is that it is indeed possible to live without the fear of having medical care unavailable to you.

With the exception of our rogue president, supine congress (who have voted themselves platinum-grade health benefits), and our richest citizens, no one in the US is exempt from worrying about health coverage. Many poor people have simply given up hope, facing the fact that if they pay for their family’s medicine their kids might go hungry as a result. They may or may not be aware they’ll have more problems with chronic illnesses and in the end will die younger than those of us who can afford to pay.

Last month, new census figures revealed that two million more US citizens became uninsured during the past year: from 45 million to 47 million.

Most middle class Americans have, at one time or another, lain in bed at night ruminating about their health coverage. Maybe you’ve spent years at a corporation and it goes under, is taken over, or is downsized and suddenly you have no job and no health insurance. You’ve got two kids, your wife is self employed and uninsured, you get 18 months of COBRA (the aptly named self-paid continuation of your health benefits), and then that’s it. You’re on your own.

God forbid you or any of your family ever has a health problem, for now the specter of “pre-existing conditions” makes health insurance unobtainable except at breathtaking premiums. For example, a 40-year-old woman with mild diabetes or fully cured breast cancer could expect to pay double the usual rate for insurance–about $800 per month or $9,600 per year.

In the US, people lose their homes and retirement savings with shocking regularity to pay off their health debts even when they have health insurance.

To give you an idea of how unthinkable this is in, say, Canada or western Europe, think about how hard it is to imagine whether or not the fire department would come to put out a fire in your home. Your mind can’t create that scenario because the fire department always arrives to put out fires in our country.

Can you imagine the pleasure of never again worrying about health insurance?

To clarify some important facts: in countries with universal health insurance, income taxes are no higher, physicians work no harder and don’t earn less money, everyone has the same “wait” times for appointments and urgent surgeries, and access to the same (and often better) diagnostic equipment.

Surgeries that are not urgent–like hernia repairs and hip replacements–may require a longer wait, but isn’t waiting a few weeks or months a small price to pay when you know that all your health care expenses are completely covered? Let me also add that it’s not uncommon for insured patients in the US to encounter waits of weeks or months for non-urgent surgeries.

As I write this, President Bush has announced he will veto a bill that would have given health insurance to four million uninsured children. The Institute of Medicine estimates that 18,000 Americans die unnecessarily each year because of lack of health insurance (click here for more), and you can be certain some of those are children.

Should we feel comforted that there’s a special place in hell reserved for people who commit crimes against children?

Next time: the collusion between the US government and the insurance industry.

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