Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Talking Sense May Be Hazardous to Your Health Plan

By Charles Cullen

Dr. Alice Chen is a Yale graduate, received her medical degree from Cornell, and now splits her time between being an "internal medicine hospitalist," and working as an assistant professor at UCLA. She also happens to be the executive director of "Doctors for America," an activist website and group sporting the slogan "Patients Over Politics." So I think it's safe to say that she's a pretty smart cookie.

I had the pleasure of a brief interview with Dr. Chen, whose primary professional concern, when not working in internal medicine or manning her post at UCLA, is making sure that everyone is covered for medical care.

She seems genuinely perturbed by the number of people in the United States lacking real access to medical treatment. So she and many of her colleagues have rented a bus and embarked on a trip from the Republican National Convention to the Democratic National Convention. The trip is jokingly called "Docs Gone Wild." Though a quick perusal of her website leads me to believe that the official name of the trip is the "Patients Over Politics Bus Tour." I rather think the former name is catchier, but as long as they're out fighting the good fight, I couldn't care less what they're called.

I asked Dr. Chen about her thoughts regarding the current political climate. She responded by referring me to political commercials based on poor science that would make it more difficult for people to receive medical care.

"Honestly," she said, "what I think to myself is this ad is going to kill people if the person behind it gets their way." I couldn't help but agree. She spoke more about political and medical hot-button issues, eventually landing on contraception. "With the contraception debate everything seemed to be getting blown out of proportion," she told me, "We learned that many people were using contraception, like the pill, for a different reason." While she was reluctant to wade into the deep end of the political muck with me, I sensed that she was trying, in a roundabout way, to say that these contraceptive users were using contraception to maintain general health; whether through family planning or other health related concerns. In other words, no one was trying to anger god, folks were just trying to be healthier. She did mention the role of religion in the health care debate, saying "You see the Catholic Church and all these other people getting involved and it's just a mess."

At the end of our conversation I couldn't help myself and asked her to comment on the Rep. Todd Akin stir. "Mr. Akin," she said, laughing, "that's why it's important to have people who actually see patients and who [she searched for the right words] know science."

I was very impressed by Dr. Chen. And as impressed as I was, I couldn't help but notice that all of her positions were held by most Democrats and opposed by most of the Republicans. I realize that having "Patients Over Politics" as a motto is useful when running an organization that, by and large, seeks to include fairly wealthy people. I am in no way upset with, or dissappointed by Dr. Chen; she has a very specific, and very valid concern: healthcare in the United States. But when all of your positions seem in line with the Democrats and at great odds with the Republican platform, it seems unusual to take a non-political stand. Even if acknowledging that Democrats are much, much more in sync with the idea of affordable healthcare means angering some of the people who support you.

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