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Donna Smith

Donna Smith, American SiCKO, is executive director of the Health Care for All Colorado Foundation

June 21st, 2010 11:57 AM

Anniversary of an American SiCKO

Michael Moore’s documentary, SiCKO, opened in theaters across the United States three years ago this week. I had seen it once in May of 2007 along with several others who were also subjects featured in the film, so for six weeks before the wider premier, my anticipation of events to come grew with every passing day. The road to my financial collapse at the hands of the medical-industrial complex took years to unfold, but somehow I believed the turn-around might happen more quickly with the push of a major documentary telling the stories of so many damaged lives.

I so hoped that throngs of people would rise up with righteous indignation following the film’s release, and so long as Michael stayed in the public eye, that was true. But what about a few weeks or months down the road? Who would still be standing with any sense or urgency for the transformation of the brutal and inhumane healthcare system in the U.S.? And what about three years down the road?

The answers are mixed and muddy, as they often are in life. The healthcare system has not been transformed. In fact, the recently passed legislation may leave more families like mine open to trauma in the years that come. Forced to buy private insurance – and sometimes with premiums only affordable on high-deductible, high co-pay and high out-of-pocket expense plans – many working Americans will find themselves fodder for future documentary films recounting the horrors of bankruptcy, foreclosure and beyond while carrying for-profit, private health insurance. That is the most terrible reality I see on the third anniversary of SiCKO’s release.

My fellow SiCKO subjects have struggled mightily in the past three years. Those whose stories included the death of a loved one due to insurance benefit denials have had their stories upstaged since 2007 by thousands of other deaths – patients left to suffer and die while insurance companies and corporate health providers grew wealthier. It isn’t so much that any of these folks expected SiCKO stardom or fame to take away the pain of losing their loved ones. Being in SiCKO and having one’s story forever recorded in that way validates the reality and the horror of it all, but sometimes knowing that little has changed to stop the carnage makes that seem like a broken promise of an especially deep, personal kind.

All of us who appeared in that film opened ourselves bare to the world – cried our tears, told our stories, shared our most intimate thoughts – all to strangers and all without being paid. I often tell audiences that folks don’t get paid to be in that sort of film, and folks are surprised. In fact, being the subject of a Michael Moore documentary carries its own special risks, as all of us would find out in our own ways. People can be very cruel and thoughtless about such things. Do folks truly think Michael Moore’s staff doesn’t vet the stories he profiles? While the opinions he shares about his subject matter are truly his own and have his unique flavor and passion, the stories are those of real people with real trauma.

I’ve said it before many times that the healthcare bill just passed will not prevent even one of the stories told in the 2007 SiCKO from being retold in the future. To a person, every story will still be possible, so in theory we could be making SiCKO II and SiCKO III and SiCKO IV for years to come. People often approach me and tell me to tell Michael that he needs to do a sequel. I probably would argue against that.

At the end of the film, Michael rolls credits including the call to action to support a national single-payer plan like that offered in Rep. John Conyers’ HR676. But in this past legislative cycle, even Mr. Conyers bailed out on HR676. In the end, no one held the line at all for what President Obama said was the only way to grant true universality. In the end, we didn’t believe every human being is universally deserving of care when they are sick. We just weren’t ready to bridge that divide.

Did SiCKO advance the discussion? I would say absolutely, “yes.” It advanced the discussion because the good people who made it, the good people who were in it and the good people who watched it cared enough to keep speaking up, writing blogs, emails and letters, marching and protesting and giving of themselves to change the dialogue and ultimately change the system. Michael Moore went on to his next film project – as a filmmaker ought to do – but he never stopped weighing in on the healthcare struggle when he was asked. But many wanted more from him even though he gave mightily of his talent and his drive and continues to do so today.

The transformational moments many of us who were in the film had dreamed of and hoped for have not yet happened. People did not see our stories, exclaim “Oh my God,” and then reach out to each of us with love and wrap us in some measure of peace so we’d not spend the rest of our lives in struggle. No, the early accolades and recognition faded and our moments of fame did not translate into futures without pain. Quite the contrary for some of us.

I often count myself as the blessed SiCKO. I was the one hired later on by the nurses after one of my blogs, titled “47,000,001,” told the world eight months after SiCKO’s release that I sat on the verge of becoming uninsured for the first time in my adult life. I grabbed onto that lifeline and never looked back. But that hasn’t always been easy either. Grabbing one lifeline almost always means letting go of others – the places and the people and the mountains and the wind through the trees in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Am I determined that the SiCKO experience matter? Of course. I always remember a scene from the film that others may not. 25,000 people sent their healthcare horror stories in to Michael Moore. 25,000 people told their truths in just a few days before the stream of messages was so great that the producers might never make it through reading them. And just a few of us – less than a dozen – were featured in the final project. So, every time I see SiCKO or mention it or stand on my experience as one of its subjects, I remember the 24,988 other people who never got the chance to be heard and seen on that screen. I owe them my best effort every single day to make my experience matter.

Else, SiCKO was just an exercise in a weird sort of post traumatic vanity – and I know that it was much more than that. It was a tome for those millions of us injured by the injustice of the for-profit engine of the sick-o health system in America. Happy anniversary, fellow SiCKOs.

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