Big Pharma is already girding for battle against the filmmaker's latest effort, due in theaters this month. Will the new flick spur change in the U.S.?
By Ron Grover / BusinessWeek
He's rumpled, a little coarse, and shoots from the hip. But Michael Moore, the irreverent force behind such politic-bending documentaries as the gun control manifesto Bowling for Columbine and the anti-war anthem Fahrenheit 9/11, knows how to stir the pot. Just wind him up, and ole Michael will fire away at entrenched political or corporate interests, no matter their size. He even took time during his 2003 Oscar acceptance speech for Bowling to deliver a finger-wagging rant against President Bush's Iraqi policies.
Little wonder then that the health-care establishment is bracing itself for the release of Moore's next film, the decidedly anti-medical industry Sicko. Moore will begin stumping for his film this week, with a June 5 appearance on Oprah Winfrey's show and then late night chats with David Letterman and Jay Leno. The movie, which is scheduled to hit theaters June 29, wowed audiences in Cannes last month, even reducing some to tears during a heartfelt scene in which an infant dies because she can't get medical care.
Now, the big test: Can 113 minutes of sharp-edged film help change the U.S. health-care system for the better? Fierce political debates over health-care reform have accomplished virtually nothing in recent years, but Moore is determined to make sure this time is different. "Do you know of anyone who hasn't had a problem with the insurance company, or getting some procedure covered?" he asks. "Anyone who sees this film will understand exactly the mess we're in right now."
Health-Care ReformersMoore's answer to the problem? Rip it apart, give the federal government control, creating a single-payer system that takes for-profit insurance companies out of the equation and regulates pharmaceutical companies "like utilities since they're just as important as electricity and water."
Moore is hitting the issue at an opportune time. Politicians and public policy experts have put health-care reform in the spotlight in recent weeks, particularly as Democratic candidates push for their party's presidential nomination. Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama have all proposed radical overhauls of the health-care industry, with the goal of covering more Americans and lowering costs. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has also laid out a plan for remaking California's health system, in the wake of a similar move by Massachusetts.
The proposal from Obama (D-Ill.) came on May 29 in a speech at the University of Iowa, where he outlined a $50 billion-a-year universal health-care plan for all Americans that would increase taxes on the wealthy and require virtually all employers to offer insurance to workers or face tax penalties. He appealed to all Americans to seize the opportunity to make fundamental improvements in the critically important sector of the economy. "We are people of action and innovation, forever pushing the boundaries of what's possible," he said. "Now is the time to push those boundaries once more."
Public DebateThere are plenty who are skeptical that health care is headed for substantial reform, despite the efforts of Moore and others. "It won't happen," says Berkeley professor John Ellwood, co-director of the Robert Wood Johnson Scholars in Health Policy Research Program. He cites a recent New York Times/CBS poll that states most folks are generally satisfied with their health care. "Too many people like their doctor and the care that they're getting," he says. "There's no groundswell of protest."
But many others, including those in the medical community, are hoping Moore will help make a difference. "Anything—including a film—that can bring this issue into the public eye is good for the debate," says heart surgeon Dr. William Plested, president of the American Medical Assn. "So, I'm cheering on Michael Moore, even though I haven't seen the film."
What role will Moore play in the debate? The filmmaker says he intends to hold a series of premieres for his film, with top Washington politicians and Schwarzenegger and others in California as well. "It takes something that grabs folks' attention in this state to get folks to write their assemblymen—and maybe a movie can do that," says Steve Maviglio, a top aide to California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, who has his own universal health-care plan. Moore is also a close friend of fellow Michigan resident Representative John Conyers, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who has introduced his own national heath insurance overhaul. Moore says he'll likely testify before Conyers' committee on the bill.
Cause and EffectIt would help if the movie is a big seller, of course. Moore's previous flick, the 2004 film Fahrenheit 9/11, grossed more than $119 million. "When you have a hit movie, people all want to come to your cause," recalls Erin Brockovich, whose environmental crusade against Pacific Gas & Electric was chronicled in a 2000 film starring Julia Roberts as Brockovich. After the film, Brockovich says she was asked by several senators to work on environmental issues.
It's that kind of notoriety that already has many in the health-care industry readying their responses to Moore's film—even before any of them have seen it. "Where there are issues raised by factual inaccuracies, obviously our member companies and we will point them out," says Mohit Ghose, a spokesman for American's Health Insurance Plans, whose members include Humana (HUM), Cigna (CI), and Aetna (AET). Ghose says his group instead wants to advance "a positive agenda" that will provide universal health care "but also maintain and preserve the affordability of that access and coverage."
Premature BacklashStill, there is mounting concern among the health-care crew. The pharmaceutical industry received reports from Cannes, according to Ken Johnson, senior vice-president of the Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), who says a friend called him from France after seeing the flick. PhRMA, whose membership includes Amgen (AMGN), Merck (MRK), and Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), issued a statement that chastises Moore's "latest escapes" as "finding new ways to advance his political agenda." Instead, the drug company group says, "a review of America's health-care system should be balanced, thoughtful, and well-researched to pin down what works and what needs to be improved. You won't get that from Michael Moore."
That's a lot of venom for a movie that has yet to hit the theaters. But then again, Michael Moore seems to inspire strong feelings—love him or hate him. And he sure knows how to get publicity: He's already being investigated by the Treasury Dept. for allegedly violating trade sanction rules by bringing 9/11 rescue workers to Cuba—where they supposedly got better medical care than they were receiving in New York-area hospitals. "In his previous movies, Michael discovered and conveyed little-known information in an engaging and compelling manner," says Harvey Weinstein, whose Weinstein Co. is distributing the film. "With Sicko, he uses powerful images and tells fascinating real-life stories to drive change." Weinstein says that after the companies learned "what they are up against, [they] hired PR firms and have their arsenal of lobbyists chomping at the bit to work elected officials."
No one loves a little controversy more than a filmmaker with a hot new film to promote. Michael Moore's got that, to be sure. Maybe, just maybe, the film can do some good at the same time it does well.