SICKO (PG-13) | three stars

Sicko (***) | Diagnosis murder for health industry

Michael Moore's Sicko opens with footage of a 2004 speech in which President George W. Bush, while addressing malpractice lawsuit reforms, says, ``Too many OB/GYNs are unable to practice their love with women all across this country!''

It is a priceless blunder, even for a president prone to poor word choices. But for viewers who believe Moore too often lets his politics obscure his message, the scene kicks off Sicko on a queasy note: Is this going to be a film about the failings of the American health care system, or is it going to be Fahrenheit 9/11 Part II?

Fortunately, the answer is the former. Sicko occasionally returns to Bush, but it doles out the smacks equally on both sides of the political spectrum (Sen. Hillary Clinton gets hers, too). Moore's film transcends the divide between liberals and conservatives, because one of the things red and blue staters have in common is that, at one point or another, we all get sick.

Two hundred and fifty million of us also have health insurance, but the movie argues that we are all one serious illness away from disaster, because the system has become corrupted beyond repair, its primary function now being to deny as many claims as possible in order to maximize profits.

In a simple, straightforward manner, Sicko builds its case primarily through interviews: former HMO medical reviewers who talk about the cash bonuses they received for turning down as many claims as possible; people who battled insurance companies and were driven to bankruptcy, lost family members or even died after being interviewed by Moore; and citizens of foreign countries such as Canada, Great Britain and France, who talk about the pros and cons of the free medical care they receive at home.

Sicko also delves into history to argue that the health insurance industry was conceived primarily as a profit-generating industry from the start. In an audio recording of an Oval Office conversation between President Nixon and aide John Ehrlichman that led to the creation of HMOs, Ehrlichman is heard saying, ''The less care they give them, the more money they make.'' ''Not bad,'' Nixon replies.

Despite the seriousness and urgency of its subject matter, Sicko is as breezily entertaining as any of Moore's past films, which is the key to his success (although he purports to be a journalist, Moore is first and foremost an entertainer). Even Sicko's closing sequence, in which Moore takes a trio of 9/11 rescue workers to Cuba to get them the medical attention they were unable to secure at home, gets the point across despite its boneheaded, misguided message (anyone who believes Cuba's citizens receive better health care than Americans simply doesn't know any Cuban citizens). Moore may play loose with the facts, but you don't have to believe every frame in the movie to come away thinking that the message in Sicko is not only worthwhile, it is also inarguable.

Writer-director: Michael Moore.

Producers: Michael Moore, Meghan O'Hara.

A Lionsgate and Weinstein Company release. Running time: 123 minutes. Vulgar language, adult themes. Playing at: area theaters.

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