Blending a movie premiere and a political rally with a savvy that even Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger might admire, documentary filmmaker and provocateur Michael Moore stormed through California's Capitol on Tuesday to promote his new film, "SiCKO," his indictment of the country's healthcare system.
Sacramento is not usually a first-choice locale for movie premieres -- 2006's "Akeelah and the Bee" was the last. But the Capitol's current focus on overhauling California's healthcare system made it the ideal set for Moore, who built his reputation on such movies as "Roger and Me" and "Fahrenheit 9/11."
"SiCKO" is a compendium of horror tales about Americans stiffed by private insurers. Swarmed by hundreds of unionized nurses who embraced him with the enthusiasm of groupies, Moore championed a solution that is a political nonstarter here: abolishing private insurance in favor of a government-run, Medicare-like system.
"There is no room for the concept of profit when it comes to taking care of people who are sick," Moore thundered at an afternoon rally with members of the California Nurses Assn., which backs legislation that would create a "single-payer" state insurer.
Schwarzenegger has promised to veto it. Even if he were swayed in favor of it, Republican lawmakers would not provide the votes needed to enact $95 billion in taxes to pay for the program.
With Schwarzenegger and Democratic leaders proposing to expand the role of private insurers, single-payer advocates welcomed the attention Moore brought to their cause, including the 14 television cameras that trailed him Tuesday.
"I'm personally very grateful you made this film," said state Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), sponsor of the single-payer legislation, SB 840. She spoke at a briefing where Moore addressed like-minded lawmakers.
"It's telling, finally, the American people that their healthcare system is very, very sick," Kuehl said.
Wearing a rumpled blazer and jeans that he later traded for shorts, Moore showed himself an adroit politician, calibrating his movie's message to each audience he addressed.
At a morning press conference with Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), Moore praised Schwarzenegger for breaking with Republican orthodoxy by acknowledging that the healthcare system was drastically broken. He chided the governor, however, for opposing single-payer insurance, saying that the governor owed his "very healthy body" to the state medical care provided by his Austrian homeland.
"I'm sure between all of you, you're going to find the right solution for California and act as a beacon of hope for the rest of this country," he told Nunez and other Democratic legislators.
His briefing with legislators amounted to an extended trailer for his film, as he described stories he had incorporated about hospitals that dumped poor patients on Los Angeles' skid row and people who received inadequate healthcare even though they had insurance. Moore brought along several of the people he profiled in the film to retell their stories to the lawmakers.
The showmanship reached a crescendo at a sweltering rally with hundreds of nurses outside the Capitol, most wearing red "SiCKO" promotional shirts and enthusiastically chanting, "Hey ho, hey ho, private healthcare is sick-o," and "What do we want? Single payer! When do we want it? Now."
The iconoclastic union is the same group that celebrated its defeat of Schwarzenegger's special election agenda in 2005 by dancing in a conga line on election night and repeating, "We are the mighty, mighty nurses!"
Moore and the nurses then decamped for an afternoon screening of the movie, which was followed by the official premiere, hosted by Nunez.
Other players in the healthcare industry, including the doctors' lobby and insurers, oppose a single-payer system. But they seemed content to keep relatively quiet Tuesday rather than become live targets.
Christopher Ohman, president of the California Assn. of Health Plans, emphasized the sliver of common ground his trade group shares with Moore: Both want everyone to have health insurance.
"We know the system isn't perfect," he told reporters. "No system serving 300 million people will be." But "bringing a huge new government bureaucracy is not the way to fix American's healthcare."
Moore predicted insurers would fight intensely to oppose any healthcare changes that call for the abolition of their product.
"They're going to fight this, and they're going to scare people," he told legislators. "Ooh, socialized medicine: bad. Really? Isn't that what our police departments are? Socialized? Run by the government? Free service? You think anybody would ever ask if the fire department should have to post a profit?"