The Campaign Against Sicko
Most of the two thousand people who crowded into the Grand
Théâtre Lumière at the Cannes Film Festival early on Saturday
morning, May 19, 2007, for the world premiere of Sicko, Michael
Moore's indictment of the U.S. health care system, rose to their feet at
the end of the film and gave Moore and his new documentary an astonishing
fifteen-minute standing ovation.
One young man, however, could not stay to applaud because of an urgent assignment. Largely unnoticed, he slipped out of the theater and made his way to his hotel room, where he placed a call to the organization in Washington, D.C., that not only had covered his trip to the French Riviera and his ticket to the premiere but also paid his salary.
Dialing America's Health Insurance Plans, he was immediately patched into a conference call where dozens of insurance executives, including me, waited anxiously on the line. All knew of the threat to the industry; none knew any specifics. Moore had kept such tight control over the release of his film that none of us knew exactly what it was about. Would it focus on big pharmaceutical companies, as early rumors had suggested, or on the insurance industry?
As he read from the extensive notes he had taken in the back of the dark theater, AHIP's reconnaissance agent confirmed our worst fears: Private health insurance companies played the role of the villain.
Which companies were in the movie, we wanted to know, and how badly were they portrayed?
I was cautiously optimistic. Because there had not been a single Moore sighting at any of CIGNA's facilities or any reports that he had interviewed anyone associated with the company, I thought there was a good chance he had chosen other targets. I was hoping especially that archrival Aetna had been in his sights.
But I was wrong: CIGNA was among the first companies in the line of fire. My phone would soon be ringing off the hook with calls from reporters and TV producers wanting to get my reaction to the claims of people in the film who said we had refused to pay for needed medical care. I also knew, though, that I would get a lot of support from AHIP, which was poised to mount a massive PR campaign to discredit Moore and his movie.
Industry leaders had already agreed to provide the resources for a campaign to attack the movie because of the concern that it would persuade more Americans to support a Medicare-for-all, governmentrun health care system that would marginalize, if not eliminate, the role of private insurance companies. Industry-commissioned polls had been showing for several years that many Americans, worried about rapidly rising insurance premiums and reports of insurance companies refusing to pay for necessary medical treatments, were not as opposed to such a system as they used to be. Several years had passed since the fear-based propaganda campaigns financed by special interests had scared Americans away from Bill and Hillary Clinton's health care reform proposal. There had been only occasional need for fearmongering during the industry-friendly Bush years.
Another big concern was the timing of Moore's film. The campaigns for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations were in full swing. If Moore's movie attracted big audiences and generated a lot of positive buzz, it might embolden one or more Democratic candidates to join Representative Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) in endorsing the expansion of Medicare to cover everybody. If the man or woman elected in 2008 favored such a radical restructuring of the American health care system, the increasingly profitable insurance industry would find itself in a war for survival.
After hearing the report from Cannes, we knew that was a real possibility. Moore's movie compared the U.S. system, dominated by large for-profit insurance companies, with the nonprofit, government run systems of Canada, France, the United Kingdom, and even Cuba, all of which have attained universal coverage for their citizens while spending far less for care that's as good as, if not better than, the care Americans receive. Not surprisingly, considering the anticorporate theme of Moore's previous documentaries, the U.S. system did not fare well in the comparison.
Excerpted from Deadly Spin by Wendell Potter. Copyright © 2010 by Wendell Potter. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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