On Thursday, July 23rd the Healthcare Alliance of Montgomery County sponsored a panel discussion addressing the future of healthcare titled "Crossroads in Health Care". It was held at the WoodlandsChurch Fellowship Campus in The Woodlands, Texas just north of Houston and was attended by over 80 interested individuals from all walks of life. The event was moderated by Camille Miller, President and CEO of the Texas Health Institute.
Panel members included Steve Sanders, CEO of Memorial Hermann Hospital The Woodlands; Debra Sukin, V.P. and CEO of St. Luke's Hospital in the Woodlands; Ken Kenegos, RN and spokesman for "Health Care For All Texas"; Stephen McKernan, CEO of Lone Star Family Health Center; Janet Roberts, Medical Director for The Community Clinic; Ronald Crookston, Executive Director of Gateway to Care; and Allen Johnson, CEO & EMS Director of Montgomery County Hospital District. Also present by phone was U.S. Rep. Brady of the 8th District of Texas.
Ms. Miller provided the crowd with a number of statistics displaying just how dire the current situation is for health care in the United States. Of note, she pointed out that we are currently spending over $7,000 per person for health care every year. Doing a little simple math, this means that as a nation we are spending over $2 trillion per year! That puts into perspective the $1 trillion that President Obama is proposing to spend over a ten year period. She also explained how we are facing a major health issue with thousands of returning Iraq vets with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and wishes we would just go back to calling it for what it is, battle fatigue. Multiple tours of duty with inadequate lengths of leave time have created a situation in which the incidence of suicide among our active duty and returning troops has sky-rocketed.
With health care reform being the top priority of the Obama administration it has become a topic which has both united and divided people along political and ideological lines. Most significantly, a line has been drawn in the sand between those who support some sort of government run "public option" or single payer plan, and those who don't.
The panel of experts speaking at this forum was also divided on the issue of any kind of government run plan. It was interesting to note, though, that the two hospital CEO's, Ms. Sukin and Mr. Sanders, both made strong arguments against a government run plan citing their difficulties in working with Medicare and Medicaid. However, not until audience members began condemning the health insurance industry did either of them mention that they also experienced those same kinds of difficulties with insurance companies.
To the contrary, many in the audience described their disgust with private health insurance companies and stated that they would prefer a plan like Medicare over private insurance. Likewise, some seemed baffled, including myself, that anyone would support any plan which purports to expand coverage and reduce costs by involving the very industry which they see as responsible for inadequate coverage and out-of-control costs, the health insurance industry.
Congressman Brady spoke at some length and took questions from the audience remotely by phone. His statements and answers were very much against any government option as well. In fact, when an audience member asked Congressman Brady if he had read HB 676, (legislation implementing a single payer health plan) he said he had never even heard of it. He is firmly on the side of profit-making enterprises continuing to run the system because it is the profit motive that gives us high quality care and state-of-the-art research. He was a little vague though when pressed to defend health insurance company profits as necessary to maintaining a quality health care system. After all, isn't it a conflict of interests for corporations trying to maximize profits for shareholders and trying to provide the best healthcare for their customers? This becomes clear when listening to stories of denied claims and coverage.
One point Congressman Brady made that most agreed with is that there is no need to rush to a vote on this issue before their August recess. In fact, the recess will give voters a chance to let their opinions be known to their representatives.
Mr. McKernan pointed out that the profit motive directs health care providers to focus on those activities which provide the most profit thus leaving less profitable activities, such as family practice, sadly short of needed attention. He also discussed how proper preventive measures, i.e., staying healthy, can save huge amounts of money nationwide. Specifically, smoking, obesity, and lack of health education cause much of the nation's costs and crowded emergency rooms.
Panel member Ken Kenegos came out firmly on the side of single payer as did many of the audience members. Kenegos also pointed out that single payer would benefit tort reform efforts in that the bulk of tort case award dollars can be for lifetime medical care. A single payer would eliminate the need for that.
Panel member Dr. Janet Roberts, who has practiced medicine in both the U.S. and Canada corrected some of the misstatements made about Canada's system and emphasized some of the benefits of a public plan. Canada's government run health care system has become the whipping boy of those opposed to a government run system in the U.S. They see it as the poster child for everything that's wrong with government run healthcare. However, Dr. Roberts made it clear that she saw positive aspects to both countries' systems.
The session ended with a question and answer period for the panel members. In the end I think that the goal of the moderator of the event, Ms. Miller, was accomplished. All had engaged in dialogue, not debate, and all had learned something. Kudos to the Healthcare Alliance for hosting such a quality event.
However, in the public realm the discourse is not so polite. Both sides of the issue are poised to do battle and have ramped up the rhetoric. It is a complicated issue in which each side of the debate frequently cites success stories to support their cause and failure stories to expose the pitfalls of the their opponents' system. One thing is clear, misinformation is running rampant and so it behooves each of us to do our homework and not just accept what is said in the major media outlets, particularly from the politicians, cable "news" channels, and privately funded "attack ads" waging this war of ideals.
Finally, it is unfortunate that the American public will not be able to vote on this issue. We have to trust our elected politicians to vote on our behalf. With wealthy corporations and other generous campaign contributors dominating the politicians' attention while they are in Washington we voters have to wonder if our desires are going to be met. That is why it is so important to call and email our elected officials, particularly while they are at home during the August recess.
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