Vital scenes

Single-payer advocates and The Healthcare Movie creators to stop in Chico

Filmmakers Terry Sterrenberg and Laurie Simons are part of the movement for single-payer health care coverage in the United States.

Filmmakers Terry Sterrenberg and Laurie Simons are part of the movement for single-payer health care coverage in the United States.

Photo Courtesy of Terry Sterrenberg

At the Pageant:
The Healthcare Movie, narrated by Kiefer Sutherland, will screen in Chico on Wednesday, April 23, at 7 p.m. at the Pageant Theatre. Tickets will be available at the door for a $5 donation. The film’s West Coast tour—part of the Drive for Universal Healthcare—also includes a Sacramento stop on April 25. For more information, go to or
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While raising their two sons in the state of Washington, Laurie Simons and Terry Sterrenberg found themselves in a position familiar to many working adults. One of the boys would get injured, and the parents would need to decide if the injury was serious enough to merit a trip to the doctor’s office or emergency room.

Simons and Sterrenberg aren’t physicians, though they do work in health care—they’re psychotherapists. Their triage wasn’t about medicine, but rather about finances. Since they didn’t have health insurance, dollar signs were almost as significant as vital signs.

“People who are uninsured or underinsured have to go through that process on a daily basis,” Sterrenberg said. “It’s kind of like this voice in the back of your head that keeps chattering—this constant worry, this constant anxiety. We call it the ‘jackhammer effect,’ which Americans have in their lives and don’t even know it.

“Canadians don’t.”

As a Canadian-American, Simons was raised in a country that offers health care to all citizens. Moving to the United States with her husband and sons proved to be an eye-opener.

Discussing Canada’s health care system with Americans was perhaps even more surprising. She and Sterrenberg would hear opinions that didn’t jibe with what they considered basic facts.

That led them to become filmmakers. They created The Healthcare Movie, a documentary released in 2011 that examines how and why the two countries’ medical systems developed differently, and what this means for residents of both.

They and their film will come to Chico on April 23, in conjunction with the Drive for Universal Healthcare (or D.U.H.)—a campaign for single-payer coverage conducting a West Coast tour that starts tomorrow (April 11) in San Diego and finishes May 3 in Seattle. The other Northern California stops are April 23 in Oakland, April 24 in Santa Rosa and April 25 in Sacramento.

“The number and enthusiasm of California activists has been amazing to us,” D.U.H. founder Sue Saltmarsh said, “and we are so hopeful that we can support the efforts there in the state legislature, as well as reaching some folks who might not be in our ‘choir’ yet.”

That’s the aim of local organizers, namely the Butte County Health Care Coalition. Tom Reed, the coalition’s president, and Dr. David Potter, a Chico oncologist, hope The Healthcare Movie stirs discussion, if not action.

“Those of us involved feel the Affordable Care Act is inadequate,” Reed said. “It doesn’t insure everybody; it doesn’t, in our opinion, have adequate cost controls; it’s a bureaucratic nightmare.”

As Potter put it: “We have the cost of a national health program without a national health program.”

Reed echoed Potter’s sentiment: “Our criticism isn’t the same as those on the right. We’re not trying to get the government out of health care—we’re trying to get the private insurance industry out of health care…. This tour is part of our campaign for that.”

Simons and Sterrenberg embarked on the film project in 2009. They traveled to four Canadian provinces to interview politicians, physicians and policy experts. They also collaborated with another filmmaker, Lindsay Caron Epstein, for on-the-street interviews.

Initially, they planned to explore health care only in Canada in order to counteract misconceptions. However, as they progressed in their research, they were struck by how similarly the countries’ health systems evolved until a point of divergence in the 1960s. That’s when Canadians adopted reform measures and Americans pushed back against “socialized medicine”—a term that grew out of a marketing campaign mounted by the American Medical Association, which opposed a national health system.

The filmmakers see a contemporary parallel: the in-vogue expression “government takeover of health care.” In the face of such opinion-shaping, they hope The Healthcare Movie challenges what Americans hold true.

“We want them to realize that the Canadian health care system is a lot better than what we have in terms of what it provides at literally half the cost of the United States system,” Sterrenberg said. “People don’t know that; they don’t believe it. They don’t believe the Canadian system has quality health care.”

Simons and Sterrenberg consider their work personal, not political, yet have become public faces of single-payer advocacy. After completing the film, they “created a portable lifestyle,” she said, traveling in their RV and conducting therapy sessions via Skype. Their passion for the film was reinvigorated last spring, during an extended stay in Maine, when Simons was diagnosed with melanoma.

“Having to deal with the doctors and the insurance companies … threw us right back into the stream of wanting to be activists in this movement,” Sterrenberg said.

Simons wound up needing a skin graft on her cheek, which she considers her “badge”—a reminder of her experience and the inspiration for her blog name, Facing Forward.

“It really represents the failure of the system to provide,” she said. “I was so torn up with the financial worry over this incident that it overshadowed the two surgeries and other things I had to go through.

“That’s the difference between the U.S. system and the Canadian system in a nutshell—in Canada, the dollar sign doesn’t ever enter the thought bubble. You don’t even think about it. It’s hard to explain to Americans what it’s like to have that missing.”