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“Sicko” Interviewees Tell Harrowing First-Hand Stories of U.S. Healthcare Failures

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As Michael Moore called for legal action against health insurance executives, lawmakers also heard testimony from several people featured in “Sicko.” Dawnelle Keys talked about how her 18-month-old daughter died after being denied treatment at a hospital. Andy Bales of the Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles testified about how hospitals dump patients on Skid Row. And Dr. Linda Peeno spoke about her work as a medical reviewer for the health insurer Humana. She says she denied one patient a life-saving operation to protect company profits.

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StoryJun 14, 2007Ahead of “Sicko” Release, Michael Moore Brings Healthcare Campaign to California State Assembly
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: After Michael Moore spoke at Tuesday’s healthcare briefing in the State Legislature in Sacramento, lawmakers heard testimony from several people featured in his film Sicko. Dawnelle Keys talked about how her 18-month-old daughter Mychelle died in Los Angeles in 1993 hours after being denied treatment at a hospital.

DAWNELLE KEYS: On May 6, 1993, my 18-month-old daughter Mychelle became very ill. She was vomiting, had diarrhea and was having trouble breathing and a very high temperature. I called an ambulance, which took her to the nearest emergency room at Martin Luther King Jr. Medical Center Hospital in Los Angeles. The doctors believed she probably had a bacterial infection, which could be treated with antibiotics. But he did not conduct a simple blood culture or treat her with antibiotics, because our health plan, Kaiser, told him not to. You see, Martin Luther King Hospital was not a Kaiser facility. Kaiser said the simple test and treatment had to be done in a Kaiser hospital. But Mychelle became sicker and sicker. She became lethargic and unresponsive. I pleaded for them to treat—I pleaded for her treatment. And no one would give her antibiotics. Over two hours later, Mychelle had a seizure. Finally, an hour after that, Mychelle was transferred by ambulance to Kaiser. Within 15 minutes of arriving, she died.

I went to court to hold accountable those who were responsible for Mychelle’s death. As my attorney put it, Mychelle died, not because a doctor didn’t know what to do, but because of her healthcare coverage status. We won our case, but, sadly, the jury award was cut to a fraction of what they felt was fair, because of a horrible California law that caps damages in these kinds of cases called MICRA. This law has been on the books since 1975 and should be re-appealed.

My case is a good example of why we need guaranteed and universal healthcare in California and in America. No one should ever have to go through what my family had to go through. I hope the movie Sicko, which I am proud to be a part of on behalf of my daughter, helps achieve that goal. My daughter was not treated and died because she was in an ER that was not affiliated with her health plan. This should never happen in America. Had it not happened, my daughter would be 15-and-a-half years of age and enjoying high school. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Dawnelle Keys’ daughter died in 1993. Andy Bales of the Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles testified about how hospitals dump patients on Skid Row.

ANDY BALES: Unlike other unfortunate souls who’ve been dumped or dropped off on Skid Row, I’ve worked my whole life to end up on Skid Row, and I finally made it. And I want to make sure that no human being is left on the streets of Skid Row. And three years ago, my predecessors found that a woman had been dropped off by a hospital. She walked in with an IV in her arm, sat down in our guest area and died 10 minutes later from pneumonia. And we set up what is now called a hospital dump can out in front of the building.

And in the fall of 2005, we had a gentleman show up in a gurney, having seizures, and the hospital attempted to drop him off, but the captain of the police force, Andy Smith, happened to be at our place in a meeting. He ran down, intervened, put the—made the man, the ambulance driver, put the man back in the ambulance and sent him back to the hospital.

And then, shortly after that, in December, an undocumented day laborer showed up covered in blood, and he’d just been released from a hospital in Arcadia, brought all the way to downtown Skid Row, walked in. We took him back to our guest area, and shortly thereafter, he became so ill from the beating that he’d taken right before he went to the hospital, that we had to call the medics and haul him back to the hospital, and he stayed there for several days. That was publicized. I think 11 hospitals were documented as doing drop-offs. It was somewhat publicized.

But in March of 2006, I was standing outside with the moms from the mission, waiting for their kids to return. Their bus had been in an accident, so I was out much later than I normally would have been. And I couldn’t believe my eyes as a cab pulled up and did a U-turn, and a little lady in a nightgown stepped out of the back of the cab, unassisted, was given no directions to our door. She’s several hundred feet from our door. And she started walking northward on San Pedro to some of the meanest streets in the United States. Fortunately, I was there. I called the captain, Andy Smith. I sent a staff person to rescue the lady, that I later found out was Carol Reyes. Hospital documents showed that she had high blood pressure, a low-grade fever, had dementia so bad that she didn’t know time or place. And yet she was brought 20 miles to be dropped off onto the meanest streets of our city. And every good thing that happened to Carol Reyes after it hit the national and world news of what had happened, every good thing that happened to her could have happened had she been treated like a human being in the first place. She was given a checkup by a social worker and doctors. She was deemed to be not competent. She was given a public guardian. She was given a lawyer. She was put into a group home. And today she’s being cared for in a wonderful way. But every one of those good steps could have been done in the first place, rather than after she made the national news.

Unfortunately, there’s been over 35 hospital drop-offs since Carol Reyes made the news. One man, a paraplegic, dropped off without a wheelchair, without a walker, dropped himself out of the van, pulled himself to the curb with his clothes in his mouth and his colostomy bag ruptured, leaking on the ground. And fortunately, one good thing that came out of this was that 12 homeless witnesses stepped forward and said enough is enough, no more of this kind of treatment for human beings.

I’d like to just share a scripture from the Old Testament. As the Jewish people were heading back to set up their city once again, they received instruction from God through the prophet of Isaiah. And it says, “I’ll take joy in Jerusalem, take delight in my people. No more sounds of weeping in the city, no cries of anguish, no more babies dying in the cradle or old people who don’t enjoy a full lifetime. One hundredth birthdays will be considered normal. Anything less will seem like a cheat.” And I want to steal an idea from Michael, that we need to move away from the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps, winner-take-all, me-centered society and move to a we-centered society. And that’s why I’m here to encourage you today. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: After Andy Bales of the Union Rescue Mission and Dawnelle Keys testified, Michael Moore urged lawmakers to take action against healthcare executives.

MICHAEL MOORE: But I’d like to know if it’s possible for a bill to be introduced, for until we are able to eliminate these health insurance companies from making decisions like they made in causing the death of Mychelle, to make it a criminal act for a health insurance company to do what they did to Dawnelle and her daughter—I’d like to know why that can’t happen. I’d like to encourage local prosecutors and district attorneys to consider filing manslaughter charges, premeditated murder charges—it’s really what it is, isn’t it—against these companies. I’d like to see the executives of these companies in a perp walk, in handcuffs, brought out. Kaiser ended up having to pay a minuscule amount of money to Dawnelle. But really what we needed to see was the arrest of their executives. When Andy Bales and Captain Andy Smith and eventually what the city attorney did in Los Angeles was to go after Kaiser, criminally, for dropping people off, dumping them on the street in their hospital gowns. It is a criminal act. It’s exactly what should happen to them. And I just wonder how long we’re going to tolerate this as a people.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Dr. Linda Peeno also addressed the California state legislators in Sacramento Tuesday. She’s the former medical reviewer for the health insurer Humana. This excerpt from Sicko features Peeno testifying before Congress in 1996.

LINDA PEENO: I am here primarily today to make a public confession. In the spring of 1987, as a physician, I denied a man a necessary operation that would have saved his life, and thus caused his death. No person and no group has held me accountable for this, because, in fact, what I did was I saved a company a half a million dollars for this.

AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, Dr. Linda Peeno spoke about her work as a medical reviewer for Humana.

LINDA PEENO: I should say right from the beginning that when you see the film this afternoon, you’re going to think I’m an imposter, because when Michael’s team called me about a year ago to talk to me about the film, I was actually so despondent about healthcare that I couldn’t give an interview. So they had to use the old material. And so, it was just so exciting for me to see all those nurses today. I just cannot tell you. After 20 years of trying to get people to pay attention to exactly what Michael said, and what shocked me into this and the thing that will be the focus in the movie is that as a young, naive physician 20 years ago, I realized that with just a flick of a pen I could condemn a person to death—and did—all because he was expensive.

And I’ve already seen references to the fact that that case is too old, it’s a mere anecdote—I mean, all the things that came out when I testified 11 years ago before Congress. But when I testified in 1996 in May before Congress about this case, I realized just the other day as I was thinking about this, I could give exactly the same testimony again—exactly, word for word. I would only have to add that things have become unimaginably worse. And I think the thing that defeated me or had begun to defeat me over the past couple years is that—the thousands and thousands of emails that I would get from people every week, to the point where I couldn’t even stand to turn my computer on.

I think that we’ll hear a lot about how managed care is going away, these horror stories don’t occur anymore. But they do, and they occur in worse and worse forms. And I think we’ll—you know, for all the humor and for all the excitement, I think that we have to remember that, for me, the reason why the heart case was so important is because it’s really the tip of a huge pyramid of suffering, preventable suffering, and preventable death that has occurred over 20 years, really 30 years, because the HMO Act was passed in 1973. So there’s untold people whose lives have been affected by this.

I think when Michael said that we can’t just tinker with health policy here and there, a little piece of legislation, a little patient rights protection, it’s even more fundamental than that. I think that we have created a culture which devalues life and devalues the care of other people and our care for one another. And, you know, I’m thrilled that we’re here today with nurses, and I hope there are doctors here. I know there’s doctors in the audience that I’ve already met, too, but—who are friends of mine. But I hope there are other doctors here who are going to represent the kind of healing and caring for medicine and their work that we need, because I think that the thing that has almost defeated me is that we’re losing the heart and soul of medicine. And that’s a dangerous condition that we’re going to pay dearly for, and are paying dearly for, and maybe with some of our own lives.

And I read in one of the commentaries about the movie so far is that this isn’t a middle-class problem. Well, not only is it a middle-class problem, you know, I ran into somebody just a couple of months ago, a businessman, a wife who’s a professional, you know, they were living the American dream—big house, private school for kids, you know, everything imaginable, until one of their daughters became ill in college. And they began to lose everything. So I think that at every point, anybody who feels comfortable because they think they’re protected by money or insurance or power or anything else, I think, will be badly mistaken.

I think the one last thing that I would like to say with regard to the movie is that I hope it expands beyond healthcare. I think Michael is right: We are an individualistic society that doesn’t feel any responsibility for one another. And, you know, I’ve spent the past 20 years seeing how my healthcare system—microcosm for the other systems. And I hope that this movie could begin to cause us to ask how we value one another in our lives, in our deaths, and what kind of systems or ideologies or values do we want to have, and why do individual human stories fail to move us. You know, the perplexing question to me still is: Why did it not move people in 1996 when I, as a doctor, testified about how easy it was to cause the death of somebody, and then as I proceeded to spend 10 years trying to get people to understand what was happening? So I think this is our moment in time. I don’t think we’ll ever have another moment. And I’d like to end with a quote from Abraham Joshua Heschel, a theologian who said, “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.” Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Linda Peeno. Dr. Linda Peeno is a former Humana medical reviewer, testifying before the California State Legislature now and in 1996.

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Ahead of “Sicko” Release, Michael Moore Brings Healthcare Campaign to California State Assembly

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