What's ailing you? 

America's health-care system is so diseased only revolutionary treatment can cure it

"Of all the forms of injustice, inequality in health care is the most shocking and inhumane."

– The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., April 1967, Riverside Church, New York

Like most Americans who are reasonably healthy and have medical insurance, I ignore the tons of paper from the insurance companies that hit my mailbox or land on my desk.

Then I got whacked on the side of the head by reality. My own employer "improved" our disability coverage, lowering rates for most employees by a few meager pennies – but trebling costs for older workers. Some senior staffers around this type-and-gripe factory are no longer able to afford the coverage – at the very time of life when they might need it.

Some improvement.

"That's the object of the health-insurance companies," explains Henry Kahn, a physician, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention epidemiologist and Emory professor. "They make obscene profits by not paying for health care when people need it."

It was with that chip on my shoulder last week that I went to a preview showing of Michael Moore's Sicko.

And I met a movie celebrity.

There are no actors in Sicko, but there are stars. Donna Smith is one. She's 52, has six kids, 13 grands. Husband Larry was a machinist, and she edited the Black Hills Pioneer newspaper in South Dakota.

"Life was pretty good," she recalls, the operative word being "was."

Larry got sick. "Basically, all of his arteries were bad," Donna recalls, and then softly adds, "Then I got cancer, uterine cancer."

The Smiths had health insurance. But as the illnesses claimed their toll on the Smiths' health, America's evil – that's the only suitable word for it – system of medicine undermined the lives they'd worked decades to build.

"Our medical-insurance premiums went up and up, over $500 a month, plus $300 a month for co-pays on the drugs," Smith says. "Our medical deductibles were $9,000 a year. We gradually went down and down and down."

At the end, the Smiths lost their home. "People think that in [medically related] bankruptcies, you stop paying the doctors," Smith sighs. "No. Medical expenses are all you have money for. The choice is pay the mortgage and die, or pay the doctors and lose everything else."

Pretty brutal truth. The Smiths were forced to leave South Dakota and move in with a daughter in Aurora, Colo.

Smith finally received quality health care – when Michael Moore took three boatloads of people to Cuba. Yes, those evil Fidel-loving commies have a wonderful health-care system – and they live an average of three years longer than Americans. The Cubans provided care comparable to anything in America – the same care every Cuban receives. "They'd tell us over and over, 'Por nada, por nada' – it's nothing. For me it was much greater than nothing."

The Cubans also treated three U.S. heroes – rescue workers in New York after 9/11 who couldn't get health care here.

Sicko will really piss you off. There are horrifying videos of hospitals dumping sick and disoriented patients without insurance onto the sidewalk. Insurance-company executives tell about the bonuses they pocket for denying treatments -- death sentences for people who lived under the delusion that their medical care was assured. A mom tells how her baby died because an "out of network" hospital refused to treat the toddler.

Most scathing are the comparisons with European nations. America is the only industrialized nation without universal health coverage, the only nation that treats disabled workers as suitable only for the bankruptcy court and the cemetery. According to the World Health Organization, we spend proportionately more of our gross national product on health care than any other nation – yet we rank 37th in the performance of our medical industry. France, Italy, Spain, Oman, Austria and Japan top the list.

Oman? Give us poor, weary, scared-shitless-of-getting-sick workers of America a break.

The big problem is the 30-some percent of our health-care dollars that are wasted on the insurance companies. By comparison, Medicare, the health program for oldsters, operates with about 3 percent administrative costs.

For their 30 percent theft, the insurance companies do ... well, it's not quite clear what they do, other than spend a lot of money trying to screw people out of coverage. But you have to ask, 30 percent of what? Procedures that cost $100 in Paris cost $1,000 here; medicine that costs a nickel in Havana or $10 in London costs hundreds here. There's no incentive for the hospitals and Big Pharma to keep costs down.

Here in Georgia, the rubes live under the illusion of rugged individualism – a myth propagated by those who steal our money. In voting for George Bush, Gov. Sonny Perdue and the rest of the GOP, middle-class Georgians elect pickpockets and thieves.

So it's not likely we'll see many changes – other than the faux-pro-family Republicans sending more kids to early deaths by kicking them off PeachCare. But just in case there is a political epiphany, some enlightened doctors have a plan.

Kahn, for example, heads a group of physicians who tallied Georgia health-care expenditures for 2003 at $37 billion. By eliminating the insurance companies, Kahn says, we'd save $8 billion. "With that we could provide health care for everyone in Georgia, without decreasing what's paid to doctors and hospitals, and we'd still save at least 2 percent of that $37 billion," he says. "Everybody is covered and costs go down." U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., has proposed a similar national plan.

Kahn also notes that criticisms of long waits for care in Canada and Europe are "just plain hokum. There are queues, but they're managed and managed well, based on critical needs. Everyone gets prompt and effective primary care. And the relationships are healthy; they're not based solely on the money and they remove the fear from the system."

Hello, Karl Marx. Call it socialized medicine if you want. But America is on life support that only a single-payer, no-insurance-company system, one that also regulates drug companies like utilities, can cure.

For more on Conyers' National Health Insurance Bill (HR 676), see www.pnhp.org/publications/the_national_health_insurance_bill_hr_676.php.

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