I don’t think I’m alone in occasionally feeling discouraged in my ability, as an individual, to make some positive change in the face of powerful corporate interests. A few recent events have allowed me to reflect on this feeling and given me some guidance in how to proceed.

The first was a recent lobby day organized by some very inspiring, intelligent, and thoughtful first and second year med students at my school. It was organized by VCU‘s chapters of Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP) and American Medical Student Association (AMSA), with some help from National Physicians Alliance. The goal was to advocate for closing the coverage gap in Virginia – expanding Medicaid. They set up appointments for us with some extremely difficult targets, so I knew it had the potential to be tougher than some other lobby days I’d participated in. Having grown up in the South, I wasn’t surprised at the undertones of sexism and condescension (ie., referring to adult, professional women as “honey” and “girls,” etc.) I even expected the ideological arguments grounded not in published research or testimony from health policy experts, but in pure opinion. Del. Orrock, an otherwise friendly, likable man who probably is great at his job as a high school ag teacher (bet you don’t have those up North!) remarked that he wouldn’t support Medicaid expansion because the program didn’t adequately ensure “personal responsibility” in enrollees. Never mind the economic arguments (Virginia is losing $5 million dollars a day for a projected total of $2.8 billion), the health outcomes arguments (over 7,100 deaths attributable to consequences of no healthcare access), or the fact that Medicaid expansion is primarily targeted toward people who aren’t (obviously) already covered by Medicaid – mostly the working poor. I tried emphasizing that I have seen many patients with illnesses that aren’t a result of lifestyle, and that we are all vulnerable to disease and death. The idea that people don’t value health care because it’s free and visit the doctor – what, for fun? – on a whim is not really even worth entertaining as a serious reason to inform public policy. I wonder whether people even believe that, or if they just latched onto that idea as a way to resolve their cognitive dissonance about how doing the morally and economic right thing would jeopardize their position as a Republican legislator. Then there was the meeting with Del. O’Bannon, a member of the Medicaid Innovation and Reform Commission (MIRC), the group currently charged with making the decision to expand Medicaid. He also refused to support this expansion without “significant reforms” though didn’t specify what, exactly, those reforms would be. It was a tiresome meeting. 

We did meet a well-dressed, attractive young woman who answered some of our questions about the general assembly process though – she was a lobbyist for Pfizer.

One thoughtful grad student in another profession remarked when I described my lobby day experience to her that it can be useful to talk to representatives just to remind us that there isn’t but so much that can be accomplished inside of the system. It’s true – I was pleasant but serious, balanced listening with speaking, and did all of the “right” things during the lobby day, but I’m not sure how much difference it made. It is very useful for these representatives to know that future physicians are paying attention and educating themselves on these issues; it’s clear we care deeply. But that may be more of a long-term strategy. Using a variety of tactics to accomplish change is something that I continue to grow increasingly respectful of.

The second is my participation in an elective at my school that is designed to introduce students to the workings of a large health insurance corporation (I won’t mention which one it is, but it’s probably not too difficult to figure out.) I signed a non-disclosure agreement to not report their proprietary information, and I won’t do a huge med student expose on my experiences because a) I don’t want to jeopardize the chances of them not offering the elective for other med students and b) my integrity is very important to me – I said I wouldn’t reveal specifics in exchange for the incredible opportunity to spend time learning what goes on there (or more likely, how they present what goes on there), and I won’t do it. So, very generally, I will say that it is difficult to envision disengaging our health care system from these huge, entangled webs of companies that offer very little value outside of what is being accomplished already by CMS. That isn’t to say the employees aren’t talented, thoughtful people who have much to offer to society – and who could easily offer it in the public sector instead. Very often when meeting with them I feel extremely sad that such bright people are being used by the company for the ultimate aim of keeping them ahead of their competitors. If this results in great patient care, that’s wonderful, but if not, money is what matters. Publicly-traded for-profit companies have but one obligation – to increase the wealth of their shareholders.

One common misconception about those who seek to limit the overreaching powers of corporations – It’s not that these companies can NEVER benefit society, it’s just that in instances when benefiting society conflicts with making money, the bottom line always wins.

I’m currently working on a review article about the impact of cost-sharing (deductibles, copays, etc) on low-income Americans, ie., the people targeted via Medicaid expansion. Getting acclimated with the literature in this area has been a combination of frustrating and inspiring. On the one hand, there’s so much clear evidence that imposing extra costs on poor people doesn’t improve their health or save money that it’s unbelievable there is still so much support for these types of policies. On the other hand, it’s incredibly inspiring to read about the brave actions that researchers have taken in conservative states. Some people have really aligned themselves with the poor, putting their reputations and careers on the line. They’re not really famous, they don’t have movies coming out, they’re not on “The Doctors” or anything like that, but they are worthy of recognition and admiration.

A few examples:

Gordon Bonnyman: A lawyer and advocate of Tenncare, an innovative and controversial experiment in Tennessee that aimed for universal coverage. It ultimately failed due to budget cutbacks and a variety of other reasons.

Teresa Coughlin: A senior fellow at the Urban Institute. Among many other things, she conducted research about how well Florida Medicaid recipients understood the extremely complicated reforms that occurred in 2006 under the premise of increasing choice and benefit variation and providing incentives for healthy behaviors (personally, the only thing I’m confident I understand about Florida Medicaid reform is that it involved a lot of paperwork). She and her colleagues demonstrated that, unsurprisingly, people had great difficulty understand the details of the plans, or even knowing that they were enrolled in the plans.

One of the core issues in assessing consumer-choice models is the degree to which individuals have the ability to make informed choices among different plans, which is central to the success of a competitive model. Informed choice presumes that key information on enrolling in and using a plan are communicated in a way that is easily accessible. It also presumes that sound plan information (for example, information on provider networks and prescription drug formularies) is readily available. Equally important, people must be able to use the information to make the complicated decisions required to ensure that they select a plan that meets their needs and preferences. Previous studies, however, indicate that understanding and acting on health care information is a problem for nearly half of the general population. Making sound decisions may be an even greater challenge for Medicaid populations, as research indicates that advanced age, limited formal education, and poor health status—characteristics common among program recipients—are associated with poorer health literacy.

Robert Reich: Ok, this guy is famous, and he DOES have his own movie (check it out – it’s great!) But take a look at this facebook status he posted today:

Behind the political theater over Obamacare – from the botched rollout to yesterday’s false claim it will increase unemployment – is a reality that’s barely mentioned, not well understood, but the most important of all: It’s leading to the biggest consolidation of insurers and health providers in history. Giant insurers like WellPoint are taking on an ever-greater share of enrollees, hospitals are merging into huge systems, and physicians are fast becoming system employees. Last year alone 247 hospitals merged, three times as many as in 2008. A decade ago, hospitals owned a quarter of all physician practices; by 2011 they owned half. Why? Because large insurers and giant hospital systems are each racing to increase economies of scale and market power over the other — in order to capture more of the revenues from the Affordable Care Act as well as an expanded Medicaid and, not the least, the surge in baby-boomer Medicare.

The endgame here is either (1) huge healthcare monopolies that rake in tens of billions of dollars a year while delivering mediocre services, or (2) a single-payer system with regulated prices that turn on healthy outcomes. I predict (2), within the next decade. Which do you predict?

It’s these people that remind me that we are in class war, for lack of a less divisive term, and it’s composed of everyday, local battles. We can’t fight them all, but we can choose an aspect of to gain expertise in. We can support each other through diverse causes, recognizing that many struggles fall under the same umbrella. And eventually, I still think, we will succeed in holding the flood gates against special interests and will be able to forge a more just society.

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