Sicko? The truth about the US healthcare system

Michael Moore's new film is a damning indictment of the way the world's richest country looks after those who fall ill. Andrew Gumbel finds out whether his accusations are justified

Cynthia Kline knew exactly what was happening to her when she suffered a heart attack at her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She took the time to call an ambulance, popped some nitroglycerin tablets she had been prescribed in anticipation of just such an emergency, and waited for help to arrive.

On paper, everything should have gone fine. Unlike tens of millions of Americans, she had health insurance coverage. The ambulance team arrived promptly. The hospital where she had been receiving treatment for her cardiac problems, a private teaching facility affiliated with the Harvard Medical School, was just a few minutes away.

The problem was, the casualty department at the hospital, Mount Auburn, was full to overflowing. And it turned her away. The ambulance took her to another nearby hospital but the treatment she needed, an emergency catheterisation, was not available there. A flurry of phone calls to other medical facilities in the Boston area came up empty. With a few hours, Cynthia Kline was dead.

She died in an American city with one of the highest concentration of top-flight medical specialists in the world. And it happened largely because of America's broken health care system - one where 50 million people are entirely without insurance coverage and tens of millions more struggle to have the treatment they need approved. As a result, medical problems go unattended until they reach crisis point. Patients then rush to hospital casualty departments, where by law they cannot be turned away, overwhelming the system entirely. Everyone - doctors and patients, politicians on both the left and the right - agrees this is an insane way to run a health system.

When Elizabeth Hilsabeck gave birth to premature twins in Austin, Texas, she encountered another kind of insanity. Again, she was insured -- through her husband, who had a good job in banking. But the twins were born when she was barely six months pregnant, and the boy, Parker, developed cerebral palsy. The doctors recommended physical therapy to build up muscle strength and give the boy a fighting chance of learning to walk, but her managed health provider refused to cover it.

The crazy bureaucratic logic was that the policy covered only "rehabilitative" therapy - in other words, teaching a patient a physical skill that has been lost. Since Parker had never walked, the therapy was in essence teaching him a new skill and therefore did not qualify. The Hilsabecks railed, protested, won some small reprieves, but ended up selling their home and moving into a trailer to cover their costs. Elizabeth's husband, Steven, considered taking a new, better-paying job, but chose not to after making careful inquiries about the health insurance coverage. "When is he getting over the cerebral palsy?" a prospective new insurance company representative breezily asked the Hilsabecks. When Elizabeth explained he would never get over it, she was told she was on her own.

Everyone in America has a health-care horror story or knows someone who does. Mostly they are stories of grinding bureaucratic frustration, of phone calls and officials letters and problems with their credit rating, or of people ignoring a slowly deteriorating medical condition because they are afraid that an expensive battery of tests will lead to a course of treatment that could quickly become unaffordable.

Even when things don't go horribly wrong, it is a matter of surviving by the skin of one's teeth.

In Montana, Melissa Anderson can't find affordable insurance because she is self-employed - an increasingly common affliction. When her son Kasey came down with epilepsy two years ago, she was saved only by a recently introduced child health insurance programme specifically tailored to people who aren't poor but can't afford to pay monster medical bills. She herself remains uninsured for anything short of major care needs.

Over the past 15 years, the stories have become less about poor people without the economic means to access the system - although that remains a vast, unsolved problem - and more about the kind of people who have every expectation they will be taken care of. Middle-class people, people with jobs that carry health benefits or - as the problem worsens - people with the sorts of jobs that used to carry robust health benefits which are now more rudimentary and risk their being cut off for a variety of reasons.

This is the morass that Michael Moore has chosen to explore in his latest documentary, Sicko, which goes on release later this month. Moore spends much of the film demonstrating that there is nothing inevitable or necessary about a system that enriches insurance companies and drug manufacturers but shortchanges absolutely everyone else. His searching documentary looks at health care in France, Britain, Canada, and even Cuba - still regarded as a model system for the Third World.

Moore has his share of ghoulishly awful stories. The film kicks off with an uninsured carpenter who has to decide whether to spend $12,000 (£6,000) reattaching his severed ring finger or $60,000 to reattach his severed middle finger. Later on, Moore focuses on a hospital worker whose husband needed a bone marrow transplant to save him from a rare disease. The couple's insurance company refused to cover the transplant because it regarded the treatment as "experimental". The husband died.

Many more stories are collected in a newly published book called Sick: The Untold Story of America's Health Care Crisis, by Jonathan Cohn. A woman in California called Nelene Fox died of breast cancer after she, too, was turned down for a bone marrow transplant by her insurance company. In Georgia, a family whose infant son went into cardiac arrest were forced to take him to a hospital 45 miles away on their insurance carrier's orders. He survived, but suffered permanent disabilities that more prompt treatment might have averted. In New York, an infant called Bryan Jones - whose case was trumpeted all over the local media at the time - died of a heart defect that went undetected because his insurance company kicked him and his mother out of hospital 24 hours after his birth, too soon to carry out the tests that might have spotted the problem.

America's health system offers a tremendous paradox. In medical technology and in the scientific understanding of disease, it is second-to-none. Since doctors are better paid than anywhere else in the world, the country attracts the best of the best. And yet many, if not most, Americans are unable to reap the advantages of this. In fact, as The New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has argued, the very proliferation of research and high-tech equipment is part of the reason for the imbalance in coverage between the privileged few and the increasingly underserved masses. "[The system] compensates for higher spending on insiders, in party, by consigning more people to outsider status --robbing Peter of basic care in order to pay for Paul's state-of-the-art treatment," Krugman wrote recently. "Thus we have the cruel paradox that medical progress is bad for many Americans' health."

Having the system run by for-profit insurance companies turns out to be inefficient and expensive as well as dehumanising. America spends more than twice as much per capita on health care as France, and almost two and a half times as much as Britain. And yet it falls down in almost every key indicator of public health, starting, perhaps, most shockingly, with infant mortality, which is 36 per cent higher than in Britain.

A recent survey by the management consulting company McKinsey estimated the excess bureaucratic costs of managing private insurance policies - scouting for business, processing claims, and hiring "denial management specialists" to tell people why their ailment is not covered by their policy - at about $98bn a year. That, on its own, is significantly more than the $77bn McKinsey calculates it would cost to cover every uninsured American. If the government negotiated bulk purchasing rates for drugs, rather than allowing the pharmaceutical companies to set their own extortionate rates, that would save another $66bn.

Astonishingly, there hasn't been a serious debate about health care in the United States since Bill Clinton, with considerable input from his wife Hillary, tried and failed to overhaul the system in 1994. That, though, may be about to change as the 2008 presidential race heats up. Everyone acknowledges the system is broken. Everyone recognises that 50 million uninsured - including almost 10 million children - is unacceptable in a civilised society.

Even the old, classically American free-market argument - that "socialised" medicine is somehow the first step on a slippery slope towards godless communism - doesn't hold water, because in the absence of a functioning private insurance regime the government ends up picking up about 50 per cent of the overall costs for treatment anyway. The indigent rely on a government programme called Medicaid. The elderly have a government programme called Medicare. And perhaps the most efficient part of the whole system is the Veterans' Administration, a sort of NHS for former servicemen.

Rather like London and Paris in the 19th century, where the authorities belatedly paid attention to outbreaks of cholera once the disease started affecting the rich and middle classes, so the American health crisis may be coming to a head because of the kinds of people who are suffering from its injustices.

Corporate chief executives, for a start, are gagging under the ever-increasing costs of providing coverage to their employees. Starbucks now spends more on health care than it does on coffee beans. Company health costs, as a whole, are at about the same level as corporate profits. In a globalised world where US businesses are competing with low-wage countries such as India and China, that is rapidly becoming unacceptable.

That explains, perhaps, why the chief executive of Wal-Mart, Lee Scott, has made common cause with America's leading service sector union - more commonly a bitter critic of Wal-Mart's labour practices - in calling for a government-run universal health care system by 2012. It's going to be a tough battle. The insurance and pharmaceutical industries bankroll the campaigns of dozens of congressmen and have so far been brutally efficient in protecting their own interests. The Clintons were defeated in 1994 in part because of the power of the industry lobbies. Doing better this time will take singular political courage.

In the meantime, we will hear ever more crazy stories like the one told by Marijon Binder, a former nun in Chicago who ended up being sued by a Catholic hospital for $11,000 because her two-night stay for a heart scare was not considered a worthy charity case. Binder, who works as a live-in companion to a disabled old woman, wrote on all her admission forms that she had no insurance and, in her telling at least, was reassured the hospital would take care of her anyway.

After a year and a monstrous bureaucratic fight that went nowhere, a civil judge promptly absolved her of responsibility for her bill - a lucky outcome, for sure. Binder said: "The whole experience was very demeaning. It made me feel very guilty; it made me feel like a criminal." She is, though, alive and solvent. Not everyone in this system catches the same break.

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