#557  

July 2007




"Sicko" Presents False View of Cuba's Health System

by Ryan Balis

 

Leftist filmmaker Michael Moore claims his latest documentary, "Sicko," will "rip the band-aid off America's health care industry,"1 which Moore sees as wrongfully dominated by private drug companies and profit-seeking HMOs.

In part of "Sicko," released June 29, Moore takes a group of ill 9/11 rescue workers to Cuba for health treatment.2 Though most of the workers on Moore's two-week sojourn in March 2007 were insured,3 Moore's motive in going to Cuba is to showcase the supposed superiority of the communist country's "free" national health care and to compare this to "the misery people are put through on a daily basis by our profit-based system" in the U.S.4 (The Department of Treasury has opened an investigation into whether Moore violated the U.S.'s longstanding embargo of Cuba.)5

As with Moore's previous documentaries, "Sicko" provides a brash handling of public policy disputes.  The film's underlying push is to, in Moore's words, "ignite a fire for free, universal health care."6  When this premise is examined, the rosy myth of socialized medicine's achievement in Cuba is crushed.

Cuba's Heath Care System: The Reality

Under the Cuban government's health care monopoly, the state assumes complete control.  Private, non-governmental health facilities, where ailing citizens could buy treatment, are illegal.7 As a result, average Cubans suffer long waits at government hospitals, while many services and technologies are available only to the Cuban party elite and foreign "health tourists" who pay with hard currency.  Moreover, access to such rudimentary medicines as antibiotics and Aspirin can be limited, and there are reports that citizens excluded from the foreign-only hospitals often must bring their own bed sheets and blankets while in care.8

Despite the reality, Cuba's universal health system continues to be glorified.  "Defenders of Cuba's communist government cite universal health care and education as 'gains of the revolution,' claiming the average Cuban is far better off today than under the dictatorship of Fulgencia Batista," wrote Tom Carter of the Washington Times.9 Moreover, "The health care system is often touted by many analysts as one of the Castro government's greatest achievements," says an updated 2002 State Department report, which rejects the notion that Cuba's health conditions have significantly improved for most Cuban citizens since 1958.10

When examining the woeful reality of health care in Cuba, Moore's and other liberals' drive to establish a 'socially equitable,' centrally-planned medical system in America should be rejected as a foolish proposal.  Though state-sponsored health care is trumpeted in Cuba as a basic human right achieved by the revolution, according to many reports, including those by Cuban defectors, universal availability of and accessibility to top quality care are fantasies.

Below is a snapshot of reports from those who have witnessed Cuba's health care system up front.  They serve notice of the horrors of socialized medicine.

Cuba's Health Care System in Practice

Says Canada's National Post, which assessed Cuba and its health system in a three-part series:

Even the most commonly available pharmaceutical items in the U.S., such as Aspirin and rubbing alcohol, are conspicuously absent [in Cuba]...  Antibiotics... are in extremely short supply and available only on the black market.  Aspirin can be purchased only at government-run dollar stores, which carry common medications at a huge markup in U.S. dollars...  This puts them out of reach of most Cubans, who are paid little and in pesos.11

The same National Post story continues, quoting Jasmin, a nurse from Moron, Cuba, "We have nothing.  I haven't seen aspirin in a Cuban store here for more than a year.  If you have any pills in your purse, I'll take them.  Even if they have passed their expiry date."12

Cuban defector Dr. Leonel Cordova told the New York Times about his experience practicing in Cuba, "[E]ven if I diagnosed something simple like bronchitis...  I couldn't write a prescription for antibiotics because there were none."13

Along these lines, Patricia Grogg of the Inter Press Service writes:

[A] survey carried out in pharmacies late last year [in 2000] by the local [Cuban] magazine Bohemia failed to find 211 of the medicines included on the official list of products produced to attend to the health of this Caribbean island nation's population of 11 million...  'They say scarcity of medicine is no longer such a serious problem, but I've been trying for days to buy aspirin in this pharmacy, and they always tell me there isn't any,' complained Mara Dolores Pea, a 60-year-old pensioner, outside her neighborhood pharmacy.14

In addition to a limited supply of medicine, according to a 2005 report in the Boston Globe, Cuban health care workers are in short supply:

A 45-year-old nurse in Camaguey Province said she has worked without a doctor in her primary-care clinic for more than two years since the physician was transferred to another clinic to replace a doctor sent to Venezuela.  'My patients complain every day.  They want me to act as a doctor, but I can't,' she said.  'The level of attention isn't the same as before.'15

The nurse is alluding to a program in which one-fifth of Cuba's health care labor supply - some 14,000 doctors and 6,000 health workers - has been contracted out to work in Venezuela.  Under a special "oil-for-doctors" exchange between Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Cuba's Fidel Castro, Venezuelans receive free eye surgery in Cuba.  In return for these medical services, Cuba receives 90,000 barrels of discounted oil per day.16

Ordinary Cubans have suffered as a result.  "Blackouts, shortages of consumer goods and other problems persist," wrote Gary Marx of the Chicago Tribune.17

Indira A.R. Lakshmanan of the Boston Globe wrote:

The system has suffered setbacks... since the cutoff of Soviet aid some 15 years ago, with hospitals and clinics in need of renovation and equipment, pharmaceutical costs soaring, and patients saying they must bring bedclothes, food and fans to hospitals.  But complaints about a lack of medical personnel are new, dating to the cooperation with Venezuela that some observers disparagingly call the oil-for-doctors program.18

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro of National Public Radio reported:

[S]peaking privately... some Cuban patients and doctors say the system has been feeling the strain of treating the Venezuelans in their home country and on the island.  Doctors say that there's a shortage of trained specialists.  Most Cuban doctors now they say become general physicians and forego specialized training because what is needed in Venezuela are community doctors.  Patients in Cuba complain that their hospitals are stretched and they're not getting the same standard of care they're used to.19

Finally, the Chicago Tribute reported in 2005:

At least one nurse involved in the eye operations said Cuban physicians are sacrificing quality for quantity as they hurry to complete as many operations as possible.  The nurse said the number of eye operations at her hospital has soared from about 15 to more than 120 daily, and many patients fail to receive important preoperative tests, she said.  The surgeries are performed round-the-clock...  'Nobody is in agreement with this, but they say that you have to do it without discussion,' the nurse said.  'The patients are being mistreated.'20

Despite shortages of medicine and care, especially since the exchange agreement with Venezuela, not all Cubans suffer.  "In Cuba there exists TWO health care systems,"21 explains U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), who fled Cuba with her family to the United States when she was seven years old.22 "[O]ne [care system is] for tourists, as well as Communist Party officials, and another for Cubans, who are forced to take with them even the most basic necessities when visiting a Cuban hospital; even aspirins are scarce."23 

Reports on therealcuba.com, a privately-run website that contains anecdotes, including ghastly images, of suffering anonymous Cubans cut off from the rich foreign-only facilities.  As explained on the website,24 the horrors of socialized medicine are not, in fact, evenly or universally experienced:

Castro has built excellent health facilities for the use of foreigners, who pay with hard currency for those services.  Argentinean soccer star Maradona, for example, has traveled several times to Cuba to receive treatment to combat his drug addiction.  But Cubans are not even allowed to visit those facilities.  Cubans who require medical attention must go to other hospitals that lack the most minimum requirements needed to take care of their patients.25

Are Cuba's health care woes the result of the longstanding U.S. economic embargo?  Not a chance, according to a group of 18 exiled Cuban doctors.  The doctors made their personal views clear in a joint letter in 1997:

We remain mystified as to why people of ordinarily good will and faith would seek to find fault with the United States for the disastrous situation inside Cuba, while failing to direct the blame squarely where it belongs - at the feet of Fidel Castro, who continues to rule our country with an iron fist after 38 years in power.26

The exiled doctors continued:

We, who have only recently emerged from the belly of the beast, can categorically and authoritatively state that our people's poor health care situation results from a dysfunctional and inhumane economic and political system, exacerbated by the willingness of the regime to divert scarce health resources to meet the needs of the regime's elite and foreign patients who bring hard currency.27

# # #

Ryan Balis is a policy analyst at the National Center for Public Policy Research




Footnotes:

1 Michael Moore, "Statement in Response to Bush Administration's Investigation of 'Sicko,'" Michaelmoore.com, May 10, 2007, available at http://www.michaelmoore.com/words/mikeinthenews/index.php?id=9780 as of June 1, 2007.

2 Janon Fisher, "Moore's 'Sicko' Stunt," New York Post, April 15, 2007, available at http://www.nypost.com/seven/04152007/news/worldnews/moores_sicko_stunt_worldnews_janon_fisher.htm as of June 1, 2007.

3 Monisha Bansal, "Nurses Praise Michael Moore's 'Sicko,'" Cybercast News Service, May 22, 2007, available at http://www.cnsnews.com/ViewCulture.asp?Page=/Culture/archive/200705/CUL20070522a.html as of June 1, 2007.

4 Michael Moore, "An Update from Michael Moore (and an Invitation to His Film Festival)," Michaelmoore.com, July 7th, 2006, available at http://www.michaelmoore.com/words/message/index.php?messageDate=2006-07-07 as of June 1, 2007. 

5 For a copy of the Treasury Department's letter to Moore, see "Uncle Sam Probes Michael Moore," The Smoking Gun, May 10, 2007, available at http://www.thesmokinggun.com/archive/years/2007/0510071moore1.html as of June 1, 2007.
  
6 Michael Moore, "A Letter from Michael Moore: 'Sicko' is Socko in Cannes!," Michaelmoore.com, May 23, 2007, available at http://www.michaelmoore.com/words/message/index.php?messageDate=2007-05-23 as of June 1, 2007.

Moore expands on his intention for "Sicko" in an interview with Entertainment Weekly: "What I'm suggesting is the elimination of private health insurance, which is a much bigger thing.  I don't know any politicians who are going to take that stand, which is too bad.  I don't know many liberals who can take that stand.  They want to reform the system and put Band-Aids on the system.  The system needs to be scrapped and we need to invent something here that will benefit all Americans."

See Daniel Fierman, "Ready for Moore?," Entertainment Weekly, June 1, 2007, p. 28, available at http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20035285_20035331_20040352_3,00.html as of June 1, 2007.

7 Glenn Woiceshyn, "Canada's Healthcare System is Bad Medicine," Capitalism Magazine, March 31, 2006, available at http://www.capmag.com/article.asp?ID=4618 as of June 1, 2007.

8 For example, see Isabel Vincent, "For Cubans, a Bitter Pill," National Post (Canada), July 4, 2004, p. A11, available at http://www.cubaverdad.net/references/for_cubans_a_bitter_pill.htm as of June 1, 2007; "Health Care in Cuba: Myth Versus Reality," The Cuban American National Foundation, available at http://www.canf.org/Issues/medicalapartheid.htm as of June 1, 2007; Anthony DePalma, "Michael Moore's Math," New York Times, May 27, 2007, available at www.nytimes.com/2007/05/27/weekinreview/27depalma.html?ex=1338091200&en=1bdee5894044959f&ei=5124&partner=permalink&exprod=permalink as of June 1, 2007;  Fred Thompson, "Paradise Island," National Review Online, May 2, 2007, available at http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=OWNhNzA2YmY3NTNjZjZhNjE1NmZjMDFkOTdjN2Q4ZmE= as of June 1, 2007. See also blog entry by "Jose," Moorewatch.com, May 4, 2007, available at http://www.moorewatch.com/index.php/weblog/comments/1624/ as of June 1, 2007; "Hospital Clinico Quirurgico," http://www.therealcuba.com/Page10.htm as of June 1, 2007.

9 Tom Carter, "Report Doubts Cuba Better under Castro," Washington Times, p. A13.

10 "Zenith and Eclipse: A Comparative Look at Socio-Economic Conditions in Pre-Castro and Present Day Cuba," Bureau of Inter-American Affairs, U.S. State Department, February 9, 1998, revised June 2002, available at http://www.state.gov/p/wha/ci/14776.htm as of June 1, 2007.
11 Isabel Vincent, "For Cubans, a Bitter Pill," National Post (Canada), July 4, 2004, p. A11, available at http://www.cubaverdad.net/references/for_cubans_a_bitter_pill.htm as of June 1, 2007.

12 Ibid.

13 Anthony DePalma, "Michael Moore's Math," New York Times, May 27, 2007, available at www.nytimes.com/2007/05/27/weekinreview/27depalma.html?ex=1338091200&en=1bdee5894044959f&ei=5124&partner=permalink&exprod=permalink as of June 1, 2007.

14 Patricia Grogg, "Health Cuba: Nearly 80 Percent of Medicines Produced Locally," Inter Press Service, March 19, 2001, available at http://www.aegis.org/news/ips/2001/IP010312.html as of June 1, 2007.

15 Indira A.R. Lakshmanan, "Help for Venezuela Strains Cuban Health Care," Boston Globe, August 2005, available at http://www.iht.com/articles/2005/08/25/news/doctors.php as of June 1, 2007.

16 Ibid.; Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, "Medical Care Draws Cuba, Venezuela Closer," All Things Considered, National Public Radio, November 24, 2005.

17 Gary Marx, "Chavez Seeing to Cuba's Revival," Chicago Tribune, November 27, 2005, p. 3.

18 Indira A.R. Lakshmanan, "Help for Venezuela Strains Cuban Health Care," Boston Globe, August 2005, available at http://www.iht.com/articles/2005/08/25/news/doctors.php as of June 1, 2007.

19 Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, "Medical Care Draws Cuba, Venezuela Closer," All Things Considered, National Public Radio, November 24, 2005.

20 Gary Marx, "Chavez Seeing to Cuba's Revival," Chicago Tribune, November 27, 2005, p. 3.

21 "Michael Moore's Cuba Problem," Miami Herald Blog, May 10, 2007, available at
http://blogs.herald.com/cuban_connection/2007/05/michael_moores_.html as of June 1, 2007.

22 Victoria Stuart, "Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: Opening Doors in Congress and the Community," Florida International University Magazine, Spring 2000, http://news.fiu.edu/fiumag/spring_00/alumni2.html as of June 1, 2007.

23 "Michael Moore's Cuba Problem," Miami Herald Blog, May 10, 2007, available at
http://blogs.herald.com/cuban_connection/2007/05/michael_moores_.html as of June 1, 2007.

24 Please note: Although therealcuba.com website includes some photographic documentation of its claims, much of its information is not sourced.

25 "Hospital Clinico Quirurgico," http://www.therealcuba.com/Page10.htm as of June 1, 2007.

26 "Defecting Cuban Doctors Blame Castro for Cuban Health Crisis," CubaNet, April 14, 1997, available at http://www.cubanet.org/CNews/y97/apr97/14e9.htm as of June 1, 2007.

27 Ibid.

 

 


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