Menu

John Lott: Moore's Myths

Michael Moore is at it again.

His newest movie, "Sicko," which criticizes U.S. health care, was a big hit at the Cannes Film Festival last week. Estimates indicate his movie will bring in $40 million in the U.S. box office when it opens in September.

At a press conference on Saturday, Moore said, "The film is a call to action," hoping to stir a revolt against both Democratic and Republican politicians, who have been bribed by greedy pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies.

Moore's main target is the problem of the uninsured. The film renders heart-wrenching portrayals of patients facing such choices as whether to pay for severed fingers to be re-attached.

If polls are to be believed, he is going after a vulnerable target. A Kaiser Foundation survey released immediately before last November's election found that 56 percent of Americans were worried about losing their health insurance and about the quality of medical care that they would receive.

This fear dominates everything else — even the very high satisfaction that Americans have with medical treatment they receive. Some 89 percent of Americans were either very or somewhat satisfied with the quality of their own health care. Of the rest, 5 percent were somewhat dissatisfied and just 5 percent were very dissatisfied.

Where else are there so few people "dissatisfied" with something? For instance, according to a Gallup poll conducted at the same time, 67 percent of Americans were dissatisfied with the direction things were going in the U.S. To put it simply, individuals are very happy about their own health care.

Despite people's own personal experiences, only 44 percent of those surveyed by Kaiser were satisfied with the overall quality of health care in the U.S. Americans worry about joining the 13 percent the Kaiser survey claims are without insurance, and they worry that the type of scare stories found in Moore's movie will happen to them.

These myths about the uninsured are unjustified. We know how many Americans overall were satisfied with their medical care. But what about just the uninsured? How badly were they suffering? At my request, Kaiser did provide some additional statistics from the survey.

Only 2 percent of Americans are both uninsured and "very dissatisfied" with "the quality of the health care that [they] receive." Another 2 percent were both uninsured and "somewhat dissatisfied."

Myths aside, the vast majority of the uninsured were not only getting medical care, they were actually satisfied with their health care.

But it is probably more informative to see how few Americans are both uninsured and very dissatisfied with different aspects of their medical treatment:

— Only about 18 percent of the uninsured are very dissatisfied with "their ability to get a doctor's appointment when [they] want one." That represents just 3 percent of Americans. Of the uninsured, 62 percent are satisfied with their care.

— 31 percent of the uninsured are very dissatisfied with "their ability to see top-quality medical specialists" (representing 4 percent of Americans).

— 35 percent of the uninsured are very dissatisfied with their "ability to get the latest, most sophisticated medical treatments" (4.6 percent of Americans).

— Just 10 percent of the uninsured were very dissatisfied with the "quality of communication" with their doctor (just 1 percent of Americans).

Not everyone may be perfectly happy with the medical care they receive, but would it be possible to go to Canada or socialist health care systems and find some scary stories about the waiting times patients face?

Sure, but unlike Moore's analysis of the U.S., you don't have to focus on a few unusual cases. In Canada, the Fraser Institute reports that on average it took 8.8 weeks in 2006 after getting a referral from a general practitioner before a patient could get an appointment to see a specialist.

Do you really think that Americans would put up with the comparably "fast" 4.9-week wait before they could first see a oncologist about cancer?

While the Kaiser survey asks patients if they have access to the top-quality medical specialists or the latest, most sophisticated medical treatments, this is a pretty high standard. It is also something clearly lacking in other countries.

Take something as basic as an MRI. Americans have 19.5 per million people. Canada has only 4.6.

For someone who saw conspiracies in the 2000 presidential election or completely mangled almost all the facts in "Bowling for Columbine," Moore's claim that Cuba has a better medical system than the United States is almost anticlimactic. Is it just a fluke fact that when Fidel Castro was sick he had to have a surgical team from Spain to do the operation?

By now, Moore probably should be sued for malpractice. It might make for a powerful movie to use some anecdotes, but you don't want to recommend medical treatment based upon just a few unrepresentative case studies.

John Lott is the author of the forthcoming book "Freedomnomics" and will soon be a Senior Research Scientist at the University of Maryland.