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Scared Sicko


Today I’m just pissing myself. That’s English for laughing out loud (I’m not actually wetting my underwear). Why? Well, not intending to, I’ve taken a quick trip to the seedy under belly of the Canada-haters. Today they’ve have actually asked for my help!

And I’m not talking here about the sensible libertarians. Those on the free-market right and elsewhere insist on bringing up time after time the debate about which specific system treats which diseases better. But this whole dispute is so bound up with national medical culture, that it’s just a ridiculous argument to have.

Just this week a classic liberal Jonathan Cohn – taking a break from promoting his excellent new book Sick – has been defending the record of European healthcare systems in the esoteric analysis of whether or not they do as bad a job of treating certain cancers as the free marketeers say they do, at least compared to the U.S. From my part, I was happy to stick my oar in that conversation because the data also show that the American system does a much worse job treating certain types of heart disease and ensuring that diabetics do not get amputations. The one thing the free-marketeers don’t want to bring up is the financial cost that the U.S. system loads onto some of its poorest and most vulnerable citizens.

But the truth is that healthcare gets rationed in all societies, even if virtually everyone on the right and even some on the left are not prepared to acknowledge the fact. But for the purposes of health reform, it’s largely irrelevant.

Changes to American healthcare are going to come about, as I argued in my very first column here, when enough of the American middle class believes that they are vulnerable to losing their insurance and access to health care. Eventually the increasing cost of health care, the decrease in employer-provided insurance, and the demographics of the baby boomers will ensure that there are enough of those people to demand significant healthcare reform.

But that of course doesn’t stop the real loonies. Today in my inbox I got a hysterical (in both sense of the words) e-mail. It was titled Waiting-list hell and – I kid you not – asked me to identify Canadians stuck on waiting lists. Now, first of all, you would imagine that if there were so very many of them, they wouldn’t need my help being found. And, of course, it’s much easier to supply the hysterics with names of Americans who either can’t get access to insurance or to medical care. But I am sure they don’t want to hear about that. Improving health care is not the goal here. Instead, the emailers are attempting to get American physicians to supply free health care to Canadians stuck on waiting lists so they can film them for an anti-socialized medicine movie.

This is actually not the first time that various right-wing pressure groups both in Canada and the U.S. have tried to stress the unavailability of certain procedures up north. There was a one point a mostly empty bus that would bring Canadians south to get things they supposedly could not get at home. Of course those buses were massively outnumbered by buses full of American seniors going up to Canada to buy their drugs much more cheaply. And when a team from the University of Michigan and University of British Columbia did an exhaustive study looking at the phenomenon they found so little evidence of Canadians coming to the U.S. for help that that their article – published in the most prestigious American healthcare journal Health Affairs – was titled Phantoms in the Snow.

I’m of course not denying that there are Canadians who have to wait longer than they would like for treatment. But the U.S. spends roughly 16% of GDP on health care compared to the Canadians’ 11%. Advocates of a single-payer system argue that if that amount of money was spent here in a rational manner under a single payer system, there wouldn’t be any waiting here. After all there’s none in France or Germany, and there are essentially none now with our current single payer system for the elderly, more popularly known as Medicare.

The reason that the free marketeers and their cohorts in industry oppose Canadian-style single-payer, or even French or German-style universal coverage has got nothing to do waiting lists and everything to do with the restrictions on prices and incomes that those governments put on the corporations selling to, and the people working in, the health care industry.

So what exactly are these movie-makers so terrified about? And why now? Well, if you go to their website you find the real answer. It’s a scruffy man wearing a baseball cap.

We have only a few months before Michael Moore’s pro-socialized medicine movie “SICKO” is released and spreading infectiously through our culture…We need to raise almost $1M by the end of April 2007 in order to meet our deadlines.

I wish them all the luck in the world in getting the rest of the million bucks in the next couple of weeks. But I’m baffled why they’re asking poor schmos like me to chip in when the answer is so obvious. There is an entire industry that will be delighted to keep anything resembling Canada or Europe out of our healthcare system. In fact one part of this industry, showing incredible savoir-faire, already has plumbed the depths in delving into similar fiction.

As humorist Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up.

Two years ago the big drug companies trade group, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America also known as PhRMA – led by former Louisiana Congressman Billy Tauzin – commissioned a page-turner thriller which was designed to be turned into a movie. The plotline consisted of terrorists poisoning Canadian drugs coming into the U.S., and wreaking mayhem – the very sort of action thriller that Tauzin, rumored at one time to be in line for a job running the movie studio’s trade group, would love. There was a more “noble” purpose here, of course: Promoting the idea that you just can’t trust those darn Canadian imported drugs – after all they’re much less expensive. So it’s just fine for the U.S. government to keep them out and to keep American consumers paying three to four times what their northern cousins have to cough up. Unfortunately the whole process ran like an episode of The Keystone Cops. The novelist didn’t get paid, went public, sued PhRMA, which tried to buy her off, and much egg was left on faces at various PR agencies and of course at PhRMA. Luckily for all concerned the Democrats weren’t in power, the drug companies and other parts of the health care industry were spreading lots of money around Washington, and the story died.

But now the stakes are higher. The health insurance industry, the medical device industry, hospitals, doctors and drug companies would all prefer this health reform debate and conversation to go quietly away, especially if, like the Michael Moore movie, it promotes the single-payer system. So you would think that if these self-styled movie producers had any sense, they find somebody in the $2 trillion health industry who could write them a check.

Come to think of it, is already a self-styled millionaire making films about the evils of Canadian health care. Perhaps he should just step up to the plate.

Share  Posted by Matt Holt at 10:41 AM | Permalink

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