By Meeri Kim
W hen they were featured in Michael Moore’s 2007 documentary,Sicko, Donna and Larry Smith were sick and broke — she was a cancer survivor, he was recovering from three heart attacks — and buried under soaring co-payments and deductibles.
Now, as the film’s fifth anniversary is celebrated in Philadelphia on Saturday with an onstage reunion headlined by Moore, the Smiths will be back in the limelight. And they are still sick and broke.
“None of us, it didn’t fix the problems we had in our life,” says Donna Smith, now 57, of Washington, whose cancer has reemerged after 10 years in remission. “The trauma in our lives continued to unfold.”
The Smiths and six of the film’s subjects will speak with Moore about their lives since the documentary’s release. Moore also plans to discuss health-care reform and the Supreme Court decision on challenges to the Affordable Care Act, which is expected to be announced Thursday.
Moore will be joined by Wendell Potter, a former health insurance PR man who has become something of a PR nightmare for his old employers. He rails against the industry as part of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan investigative news organization.
The fund-raising event — with a minimum donation of $40 — will be at Plays and Players Theater on Delancey Street. All proceeds benefit two nonprofit groups that support single-payer health care, Vermont’s Public Assets Institute and the Philadelphia-based Healthcare-NOW.
Moore’s film aimed to expose flaws in the U.S. health-care system, whose costs and co-pays have continued to rise since its release. The number of uninsured rose from 45.7 million in 2007 to about 50 million in 2010, and those with insurance are paying more for their care.
The Affordable Care Act, passed in 2010, was meant in part to get more people insured and do away with many insurance restrictions. Sicko showed, for example, how some people were denied coverage for preexisting conditions, which the act would prevent starting in 2014. But that protection could disappear, especially if the court strikes down the law’s most controversial aspect, the individual-purchase mandate.
The film also shows the Smiths going bankrupt and moving in with their daughter despite having health insurance. They were swamped by their deductibles and co-pays.
“The legislation does address some of the more egregious issues” in the documentary, said David Nash, dean of the Jefferson School of Population Health at Thomas Jefferson University.
“The ACA is the closest we’ve ever got to universal coverage,” he added. “I’m sure Michael Moore would be happy if it passes. My prediction is they will strike down the individual mandate and maintain everything else.”
Many critics see the measure as too heavily increasing the role of government and adding to bureaucracy while doing little to control costs.
Wendell Potter might seem an unlikely ally for Moore. He worked for insurance giant Cigna Corp. for almost 15 years.
The further he moved up the chain, he says, the more his job started to pick at his conscience.
He became concerned about strategies and loopholes that he says allowed insurers to avoid paying for care, or to drive up consumer rates so high as to leave many uninsured.
His job was to defend these tactics, which he eventually “couldn’t in good conscience keep doing,” and so he quit, without having a Plan B. He now uses his years of inside experience to speak about the health care industry.
A Cigna spokesman had no comment about the documentary or Potter.
Potter still worked for Cigna when Sicko came out, and had to defend the company over a case in the film. A hearing-impaired young girl was given approval for one cochlear implant, but not two, because the company deemed the treatment experimental. Her father, outraged, told Cigna that he would use his daughter’s case as fodder for Moore’s latest documentary, at which point the company suddenly approved implants for both ears.
Potter says that he had to do significant damage control, especially because the patient was a young child. He also acknowledges that the company knew that once the movie stopped being screened, the negative attention would “blow over.”
He says he was one of the first people to see Sicko. Acting as a spy for Cigna, he says, he “sat in the back taking notes,” and thought that the stories of people in the film being denied care were “heartbreaking” yet “common.”
He also went to a post-premiere reception for Sicko with son Alex, where they took a photo with Moore. That was “the first and only time” he and Moore have met, he said; onstage Saturday will be the second.
Others featured as part of the reunion are Reggie Cervantes and Billy Maher, 9/11 responders who ended up with respiratory problems; Dawnelle Keys and Julie Pierce, who say they lost loved ones when they were denied care; Lee Einer, a former health insurance worker; Adrian Campbell Montgomery, who in the documentary was traveling to Canada for medical care for her daughter and herself; and the Smiths.
Donna Smith was struggling to pay bills for cancer treatment when the documentary was shot, and recently, her “cancer markers were up again, and every test [her] doctor has ordered is delayed, questioned” by her insurance company, she said.
And that, Smith says, is part of why it is important to have this reunion: “I wish we put the film in a vault somewhere, saying, ‘Look how bad it used to be!’ But it’s still relevant five years later.” ♦