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For Filmmaker, 'Sicko' Is a Jumping-Off Point for Health Care ChangeStephen Crowley/The New York Times
Published: June 24, 2007
[photo caption: Michael Moore appearing with House members last week on Capitol Hill, where he is promoting his film and a plan to guarantee health care.]
The cameramen shuffled backward through a Capitol Hill corridor, as reporters from Tokyo and Paris strained to capture the campaigner's every word. An entourage of handlers, with cellphones to their ears, kept the scrum moving toward the door. A van was waiting, its engine running. "Keep moving, people," one aide barked. "Keep moving. We've got to go."
Barack Obama in the House? Perhaps Fred Thompson?
Try Michael Moore, the guerrilla filmmaker, his plaid shirt untucked in the back, on the latest stop, held Wednesday, in a Barnumesque promotional tour that has taken on the trappings and purpose of a tightly managed political campaign.
As he moved from Sacramento to New York and on to Washington this week, Mr. Moore has not just set out to sell tickets to "Sicko," his cinematic indictment of the American health care system. He has also pushed his prescription for reform: a single-payer system, with the government as insurer, that would guarantee access to health care for all Americans and put the private insurance industry out of business.
Whether embracing Mr. Moore's remedy or disdaining it, elected officials and policy experts agreed last week that the film was likely to have broad political impact, perhaps along the lines of "An Inconvenient Truth," Al Gore's jeremiad on global warming. It will, they predicted, crystallize the frustration that is a pre-existing condition for so many health care consumers.
Well before the film's June 29 national release (it opened Friday on one New York screen), politicians on the left began lining up to associate themselves with Mr. Moore.
Representative John Conyers Jr., a Democrat from Mr. Moore's home state of Michigan, played host to the filmmaker at a Congressional hearing this week to build support for his bill to establish a single-payer system. Fabian Núñez, the speaker of the California Assembly, who is negotiating a health care package with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, held a closed-door meeting with Mr. Moore last week and then joined him at a crowded news conference. After attending a screening on Wednesday night, Representative Bobby L. Rush, a Democrat from Chicago, promptly swore off contributions from the pharmaceutical industry.
"I think one movie can make a difference; I do believe that," Mr. Moore said Wednesday, while being driven from the standing-room-only Congressional hearing to a puckishly arranged screening for health care lobbyists. "I'm not doing this to market the film. First of all, I don't need to market my films. Every time I make a film, it breaks the last record. But I'm doing this because I really want to make a contribution to the national debate on this issue."
Though few people have actually seen the movie, Harvey Weinstein, one of its executive producers, said it had already set off "a political wildfire." The film, Mr. Weinstein said, "comes at a time when people are fed up with health care and want reforms - and I believe it will be a catalyst for the type of real change people want."
Mr. Núñez, a Los Angeles Democrat, said the movie would galvanize support for the reform legislation in the California Legislature. "The conclusion you come to after watching that documentary is that you have a health care system on the verge of collapse," he said. "It's either going to fall of its own weight, or people are going to rise up against it."
The movie's critics argue that it lacks the credibility to move public opinion in a lasting way, and that it will have no more impact than Mr. Moore's previous films.
"I think it will be like 'Bowling for Columbine,' " said Michael F. Cannon, director of health policy studies for the Cato Institute. "You remember how we all got together afterwards and decided to ban guns."
Mr. Moore and his producers have hired a team of experienced political operatives to garner publicity for "Sicko" and to respond to anticipated attacks from the insurance and pharmaceutical industries. They include Chris Lehane, an aggressive consultant for the Gore and Kerry presidential campaigns, and Ken Sunshine, a prominent New York publicist who once served as chief of staff for David N. Dinkins, the former mayor.
At stops on each coast, in scenes that seem made for a sequel, the Moore camp has surrounded its standard bearer with chanting health care workers uniformed in red scrubs. The strategists used full-page advertisements to invite 900 lobbyists - by name - to the private screening in Washington (only half a dozen showed) and held another screening on Wall Street for health care stock analysts. They orchestrated a march on the headquarters of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association in Chicago, and sent Mr. Moore into New Hampshire, the first primary state, to demand pledges of support from presidential candidates.
"It's being run like a war," Mr. Moore said. "I mean, we're in a battle with these corporations who want to maintain their position. They don't want to give an inch on this, and we're out to upset the apple cart."
Mr. Moore agrees that he is merely setting a match to fuel that has been welling for years. Recent polls show that universal access to health coverage is by far the country's top domestic policy priority, and that nearly half of all Americans say they support the single-payer system extolled by Mr. Moore in "Sicko."
But the success of Mr. Moore's previous films guarantees "Sicko" the kind of mass audience rarely associated with health care reform. His last movie, "Fahrenheit 9/11," became the top grossing documentary ever, taking in $119.2 million domestically in 2004 (five times as much as Mr. Gore's movie in 2006). "Sicko" has a $9 million budget, Mr. Weinstein said.
Though speaking against the film carries the risk of generating more buzz for it, the opposition is also campaigning hard. Representatives of insurance and pharmaceutical trade groups are countering Mr. Moore's praise for socialized health systems in Canada, Cuba, France and Britain. And as details have seeped out from screenings, they have started disputing some of Mr. Moore's anecdotes about rejected insurance claims and unnecessary deaths.
Staff members of America's Health Insurance Plans, the industry's leading trade group, handed out news releases at Mr. Moore's events this week emphasizing the need for "a uniquely American solution" and raising the specter of "long waits for rationed care."
Free-market policy groups like the Cato Institute have held briefings to rebut Mr. Moore, showing short films that find fault with the Canadian system. Health Care America, a group that is financed in part by pharmaceutical and hospital companies, placed an advertisement in a Capitol Hill newspaper stating: "In America, you wait in line to see a movie. In government-run health care systems, you wait to see a doctor."
Ken Johnson, a senior vice president for Pharmaceutical Manufacturers of America, predicted the movie was "going to energize activists, but I don't think it's going to change anybody's party affiliation." Yet, Mr. Johnson said the industry did not feel it could ignore the movie because doing so would "admit tacitly that some of what he says is true, and that's not the case. He holds the camera, he gets the last say, and that's the problem for us."
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