Monday, July 2, 2007 6:39 PM

No Whitewash Powerful Enough

By Donna Smith, proud American appearing in Michael Moore's 'SiCKO'

ATLANTA – It would be difficult to identify one moment over the past two weeks as the most powerful or moving. As my husband and I have traveled through the U.S. participating in premieres and screenings of Michael Moore’s new film,'SiCKO,' we have experienced things that folks in our income range and social groups rarely do. We have been graciously included in events often closed to all but the most celebrated of celebs.

Michael Moore featured us in the film because we represent what is happening to so many Americans. Our health issues and health care costs drove us to bankruptcy and shame. The past several years have been filled with anguish, and the joy of watching this film begin to make an impact is healing for us.

But a few days ago in Atlanta, I found myself witness to and participant in a health care truth hearing sponsored by HealthCare-Now at the U.S. Social Forum. That hearing illuminated more truth – more stories – many like those shown in 'SiCKO'. But the hearing also made it abundantly clear that no amount of slick advertising or marketing whitewash can cover up what Americans are enduring within this private health care system. The truth just cannot be hidden.

Listening to story after story about trauma and devastation suffered by fellow Americans who are uninsured or under-insured is difficult, even sickening. The moral issues cannot be avoided. And as Michael Moore asks in 'SiCKO,' “Who are we?”

But I also began to see a broader view of the whole private health care issue within one story told by a nearly toothless woman from Ohio. Though her speech was definitely impaired by her lack of teeth, she spoke with courage and without self-pity which might have been easier and certainly justified.

She had health insurance just a couple of years ago through her job. She worked, paid taxes and paid her health premiums. But when her dental problems became more and more serious, her insurance plan would not cover necessary treatment. It did cover removal of teeth. So, slowly but surely, her teeth were pulled.

She stood before us now in an open-air tent in the hot, thick, mid-day air in Atlanta. Huge fans circulated the air and could have drowned out her voice, but the crowd was silent and her strength was enough to overcome the background noise.

She told us that after her teeth were pulled, her employer fired her because she was “unsightly.” We gasped, but only in support of her not because we didn’t believe a modern American company would do such a thing. She told us that then she started down the steady slope towards homelessness and use of the public health system that included emergency room visits for health issues that might have been handled in a less acute and less expensive setting, if she had insurance or cash to use another provider.

This beautiful, powerful woman had been reduced to this. And she had most surely been yanked off the roles of taxpaying Americans and onto the public program rosters. How does this make even economic sense?

She goes from contributor to being a “drain” on the system nearly overnight. And as she slipped into deep poverty and homelessness, she also developed physical problems from her terrible living conditions and a lack of preventative or even early interventional health care.

Another scenario for her could have been, if we had universal health care, that she had her dental problems addressed properly and her teeth saved, kept her job and her modest housing, continued paying taxes and eventually moved forward in her life. Even if I remove all the hideous, non-compassionate ethical considerations, it just flat seems smarter to me that we stop this cycle.

Every American product now includes in its cost a certain percentage of mark-up for health costs and coverage provided by American businesses. On large ticket items, like cars, that cost increase can often be several hundred dollars. Since most Americans finance the purchase of cars, they now also pay interest on the amount that the car manufacturer must pass along in health care costs for its employees.

Those costs have mounted in every industry across the nation. In many cases, those increased costs are making American products and services less competitive thereby driving the increased dependence on foreign products and the loss of American jobs. This cycle is well-documented. Every major news organization has done reports on the issue, and few arguments countering this cause-effect economic pattern have been offered.

Small businesses can often not afford to even offer health coverage at all or offer only plans with high premiums and deductibles which are more like catastrophic coverage.

So this whole private health insurance system is costing us all – top to bottom, morally and economically.

So why do we keep it up? Do we see those toothless individuals and still think, “It couldn’t happen to me?” Or do we step over them on our way to our American dreams, still believing we did it the right way and they did it wrong? Poor people have poor ways, don’t you know.

After sitting in that hot tent in Atlanta and listening to this woman with more dignity than any person I’ve yet to meet on this marvelous journey toward changing this system, I realized that this fight will take much more than a call for moral justice or outrage.

The battle to pass House Resolution 676, single-payer, universal health care, as offered by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., and 75 other co-sponsors, will take moral indignation, no doubt.

But the fight for universal health care will also take a tearing at the very fabric of the American psyche – that independent streak that makes us pioneers and homesteaders and internet start-up gurus.

We all grew up with this gut full of self-righteousness, lightly colored with compassion as we attended church each Sunday. But now we need to flip-flop the equation a bit.

We’ll need economists on board to really compare the costs of the whole package: including a very direct assessment of how universal health care would play out in an average family’s budget and in the budget’s of the SUV-driving, three-car-garage in the suburbs owning families.

Let’s get really down to the nuts and bolts of the reality. Toothless, unemployed, uninsured women cost us serious money. If we cannot see her pain and see her humanity, then can we at least run the numbers?

As for me, I don’t need to run the numbers. I see the costs for her. I feel the costs for myself in the lack of self-respect I feel when I realize I am part of the system that is doing this to her and hundreds of thousands of others. And I know that I never again want to hear a fellow American woman stand before me apologizing for her lisp due to a loss of teeth and assuring me that she once had a beautiful smile.

That cost is simply unacceptable on any level. There is no political spin fast enough or whitewash dense enough to cover this American woman’s truth.

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