'Mad as Hell Doctors' head to Congress

PORTLAND — Some Oregon doctors are headed for Congress to ask lawmakers to take health care reform back to the drawing board and hold a real debate about a single-payer plan that would cover all Americans.

The small group of veteran physicians held a rally Tuesday in downtown Portland before leaving on a national tour to urge Congress and the Obama administration to consider every option for a complete overhaul before settling for anything less.

“Health care affects every one of us,” said Dr. Paul Hochfeld. Congress needs to come up with a “real solution to our health care disaster,” he said.

Hochfeld and his fellow physicians say a single-payer system of publicly funded universal health care could dramatically reduce administrative costs passed on by insurance companies and reduce chronic illness by expanding access to preventive care.

But Beth Ashmore, past president of the National Association of Health Underwriters, said the doctors are ignoring a number of potential problems with a single-payer system.

She compared it to the problems facing Medicare for older Americans, saying Medicare already shows signs of potential financial collapse under the weight of aging baby boomers without adding a national single-payer health care system that would include all ages.

“We cannot afford this,” Ashmore said. “We have to keep from burying our grandchildren with debt.”

Hochfeld, however, said the purpose of the tour is to put those issues on the table and try to find a way to deal with them, rather than just say it cannot be done.

The group of physicians calls itself the “Mad as Hell Doctors,” borrowing from the famous line in the movie “Network” expressing anger over politicians and big corporations that do not care about the needs of the average person. In the movie, TV anchor Howard Beale rants, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

The doctors are driving a recreational vehicle to Washington, D.C., for a rally on the Capitol steps. They’ll stop along the way for rallies to build support for a single-payer system — beginning in Seattle and including Spokane; Helena, Mont.; Salt Lake City; Denver; Minneapolis; Chicago; Detroit; and Nashville.

The 10 doctors in the group have a wide range of medical experience. Hochfeld is an emergency room physician in Corvallis.

They say a single-payer plan similar to Canada’s was never debated but offers the only lasting solution to extending health care to every American without bankrupting the country.

Instead of a real debate, they say, Congress is offering up patchwork proposals that are temporary solutions at best, and leave many Americans without health care at worst.

Ashmore, however, said many of those proposals can provide long-term solutions — such as encouraging private employers to offer more preventive care, or tort reform to reduce the costs of medical lawsuits — if they are combined.

“There are a number of things that can be done inside the system, inside of what we’re currently spending, to really improve the cost effectiveness of the system,” Ashmore said.

But Dr. Paul Gorman, a Portland internist and family physician, blames the existing private insurance system for one of the lowest life expectancies and one of the highest infant mortality rates among industrialized nations — despite some of the best-equipped hospitals and many of the best-trained doctors and nurses in the world.

“We’re getting Third World results and third-rate health care because of an insurance system that prevents those nurses, prevents those doctors, and prevents those hospitals from giving the care they can,” Gorman said.

Other nations, including those with single-payer systems, fare better in many categories, he said.

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