Health group advocates market-based solutions
■ Supporters say Health Care America's objectives match those of many physicians.
By David Glendinning — Posted May 1, 2006
Washington -- A new advocacy organization has formed in Washington to counter what its founders perceive as too much government and trial lawyer influence on the U.S. health care system.
Health Care America, which bills itself as nonpartisan, will champion private-sector-based solutions to the problems of high health care costs and the uninsured, said Executive Director Sarah Berk, a former congressional staffer who most recently served as a lobbyist for the American Hospital Assn. Although the group has not yet nailed down the specific issues on which it will work, it will focus on increasing patient access, autonomy and choice through market-based competition rather than government control, she said.
The Medicare prescription drug benefit is one example given by the group of a policy change that relies on private-sector competition to lower prices and provide more choice for health care consumers. Health Care America also will push for medical liability reforms that preserve patient access to care.
The nonprofit organization is receiving financial backing from health care professionals, hospitals, drug companies, pharmaceutical benefit managers and others, though Berk declined to identify which ones. The American Medical Association is not currently part of the new effort.
Several people involved with the new group said it could best be described as a counterweight to the more liberal-leaning consumer group Families USA.
Families USA Executive Director Ron Pollack said that he was "amused and flattered" by the comparison. He added that the main contrast so far between the two groups centers on their funding sources. Families USA receives donations from national foundations and accepts no money from health care industry groups.
"Based on the supporters of this new organization, it seems to be more a voice for the health care industry than for consumers," he said. "This organization seems entirely beholden to the special interests groups that often work in opposition to the best interests of America's families."
But many physicians will want to become active with the new group once they realize that they share many of the same goals, said René F. Rodriguez, MD, an orthopedic surgeon in Miami and the president of the Interamerican College of Physicians and Surgeons.
He is one of three physicians on Health Care America's eight-member advisory board. The other two are George Thomas, DO, past president of the American Osteopathic Assn., and Kurt Kooyer, MD, an internist and managing partner of Urgent Medicine Associates in Fargo, N.D. Former Dept. of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson is also on the panel.
"Once the consumers have more power, the practice of medicine is going to get better," Dr. Rodriguez said. "Physicians are going to get paid better, the patient is going to listen to them better, and they are going to have more independence. Today, we are almost slaves to the insurance companies and the government."
Sen. John Ensign (R, Nev.), the author of legislation that would cap damages in medical liability suits, said the concepts of consumer choice and control that the group is advocating ultimately would improve interactions between doctors and their patients. "Managed care has its place and will have its place, but when it becomes too much about managed costs, you just start cranking people through the system, and you don't end up with that good doctor-patient relationship," he said.
The perils of government-controlled health care are especially clear to Dr. Rodriguez, who emigrated from Cuba in the 1960s. Cuban patients often rely on U.S. relatives to send them medicine unavailable in their own country. The waiting times for urgently needed surgeries in countries with socialized medicine often can last months, he said.
The group's first advertisement features an image of a bear in a hospital. The bear harkens back to a comment President Reagan made during the Cold War about the threat of the Soviet Union. Dr. Rodriguez said the symbol represents the dangers of government-run health care.