Physicians push for health care
Doctors are taking their perspectives to the national political conventions.
Seattle Times staff columnist
Dr. Lisa Plymate is setting down her stethoscope to hit the streets with other doctors who believe their patients need more from them than a good examination.
A small group of doctors from around the country is going to the Republican National Convention this week and the Democratic National Convention next week to advocate for affordable health care.
The doctors believe their voices can take some of the partisanship out of health-care debates.
"People need health care, no matter what party you're in," Plymate told me Tuesday between patients. "We as physicians feel it is our responsibility to step in there in the middle of this debate and say, 'We care about our patients.' "
Plymate is an internist at Providence ElderPlace in Southeast Seattle. She's also Washington state director of Doctors for America (DFA), the 4-year-old group that organized what it's calling the "Patients Over Politics Bus Tour."
Members of the group will conduct rallies, health screenings and educational forums at several stops in a journey from Florida to South Carolina. The idea is that doctors who see health-care-system problems up close can talk facts with credibility.
The group claims 15,000 members nationally, doctors and medical students, and about 1,000 are on the Washington mailing list. Fifty are on the tour, and local doctors participate at each stop. DFA is nonpartisan as a group, but most members lean Democratic.
They are supporting the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act as an imperfect, but important step in the right direction.
"We are driven by the patients we see who need help," Plymate said, "and so many times our hands are tied when we see people who don't have any coverage. There is a standard of care you should be following, and you can't because the patient can't pay for it."
She saw that when she worked at a community clinic in Toppenish, Yakima County, treating migrant farmworkers. Ability to pay was a particular problem for patients who needed to see specialists. Sometimes specialists would refuse to see them, and she'd have to send them across the mountains to the University of Washington Medical Center for treatment.
And Washington is one of the better states, she said. Some states offer fewer options. That's one of the reasons she supports a national plan.
"I want to be able to treat that patient based on what their health-care needs are not on what their health insurance is," she said.
Sharon Paige, a fourth-year medical student at the UW is participating in the bus tour, and so are two friends of Plymate's who are not doctors. Before they flew off to Florida, I asked them why they got involved.
Paige said, "Even in my short time being involved in health care I've seen so many patients who by the time they come to care are almost at death's door because they didn't have the means to go to a primary-care physician for screening."
Paige also has a Ph.D. in pathology and a political-science degree, and she plans to put them all to use. She wants to develop a stem-cell-based treatment for congenital heart disease, and to use "political advocacy to be able to improve health care for children and their families.
"Fundamentally," she said, "one of the problems we have with all this health-care controversy is there aren't a lot of doctors and nurses and other health-care providers at the table."
Plymate's friends Ann and Tony Martin are retirees (he was a lawyer and she a transportation planner) who are not yet old enough to qualify for Medicare coverage, so they're paying a big chunk of money for health insurance, Ann told me. They also have a son who just completed college and needs to find coverage.
All four participants are active Democrats, and both Plymate and Ann Martin are part of the state's delegation to the Democratic National Convention.
There is no getting around the political divide over how to manage health-care access, especially in an election year. But they don't see that as an excuse not to try to find a way to communicate.
Dr. Alice Chen, of Los Angeles and a board member and executive director of Doctors for America, told me, "Ultimately what we are fighting for is the future, and it has to happen now.
"When people ask why I'm doing this, I say I'm not spending the rest of my career working in a system that is broken."
She said that while older and larger physicians' groups support the Affordable Care Act, DFA was created to help take advocacy to another level. "Every doctor should be speaking out," she said.
Paige said, "What's important is that everyone comes to the table. If you disagree, let's just sit at the table and talk about the facts."
That could be a good prescription for our unhealthy politics if only the patient would sit still and swallow a dose.
Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter @jerrylarge.
About Jerry Large
I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
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