Tuesday, August 28, 2007 11:21 PM

The Short End of The STiCKO

By Donna Smith, American SiCKO, and Founder, American Patients for Universal Health Care

DENVER – In the business section of the Rocky Mountain News on Tuesday, I read a disturbing article. It read, in part:

Physicians are squeezing in more patients for smaller pay increases, according to an annual survey of doctors' salaries.

Median compensation for primary-care physicians rose only 2 percent to $171,519 last year, falling behind the 3.2 percent inflation increase in 2006, according to the Medical Group Management Association. Specialists reported an even lower rate of median compensation gains, with a 1.7 percent overall increase to $322,259.

Doctors are increasingly squeezed by soaring costs and declining payments from insurers and Medicare. The slipping salaries came as primary-care physicians reported a 3.7 percent increase in gross charges, while specialists charged 2.3 percent more.

"Patients can expect to feel the pinch right along with practices as physicians in some specialties see more patients each day for incongruous pay," said William Jessee, president and CEO of Arapahoe County-based MGMA.

But the bad, sad news for docs didn’t end there. The article continued: Some specialists fared worse than others. Salaries for invasive cardiologists dropped 1.3 percent to $457,563, while opthalmologists reported the survey's biggest drop with a 1.6 percent loss in pay to $297,486.

Wait, now let me get this straight. The doctors are unhappy because their salaries didn’t rise enough. And who is going to pay for their discomfort and suffering? Patients. Once again, American patients will pay more for less. And we will do so until we break the cycle by demanding universal, single-payer care for every American.

My husband Larry, another American SiCKO, is working on seeing a cardiologist who supports universal health care because of what that support says about the physicians' motivations, but that's not easy. Physicians for a National Health Program only has three cardiologists as members listed as living in Colorado, and one of them has already retired. Cardiologists are rather fond of the current health care funding system and many would be even more happy with mandates that every American purchase insurance. The pool of potential Larrys would grow exponentially.

But back to the issue at hand. I am so sorry Larry’s cardiologist will only push half-a-million in salary this year. With his investments in hospitals, clinics and his huge group practice, he might not even clear a million. It’s gonna be tough for him. The multiple buildings that house the various locations for the Aurora-Denver Cardiology practice group cost an awful lot to operate and manage. And the facilities are not green by any means, so those energy costs must also be nipping at the heels of the group's profits.

But what is going to be tougher is what Larry will face even more of in the doctor’s office: less time with the physician and higher costs.

Larry provides a healthy revenue stream for specialists wherever he goes. With coronary and peripheral artery disease, he provides a plethora of opportunities for increased profits.

His hips and legs have been hurting for years. Whenever he walks more than about 100 feet, pain begins that is only relieved by resting only to begin again with the next short walk. First, the cardiologist referred him to the vascular specialist to check for claudication. Larry has already had two surgeries on his iliac arteries to relieve blockage, but the pain always returns.

The vascular doc charges him plenty and sends him to an orthopedic doc who does not even complete an examination but orders an MRI and charges $300 for the one minute “interview” he has with Larry. He concludes that Larry’s back is fine (he didn’t order an MRI of the hips as he doesn’t treat hips), so when Larry asks “What about my hips?” the response is to refer him yet again.

By the time he has served his time in the whirling dervish of money-making specialty groups, Larry has seen four specialists (a cardiologist, a vascular surgeon, a orthopedic doctor and a neurologist) a total of eight times, has had only one hands-on physical exam and his insurance (Medicare and Humana supplemental policy) have been billed for more than $3,500. And there is no diagnosis. His hips still hurt when he walks. He has contributed mightily to the income of these docs, and they have contributed nothing but frustration and more pain to him.

Now these same specialists are sad about their salary increases for last year, and so Larry will get even less care? And more charges? Wild way to do business.

But what did PT Barnum say about a patient – oops, I mean a sucker -- born every minute? Was he a cardiologist?

By the way, Larry is switching all of his cardiology business (and the insurance payments) to a cardiologist who supports single-payer, universal health care. He thinks other patients should do the same. Let's walk the walk together.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007 11:38 AM

The Growing Storm III: 'SiCKO' Draws Activists Together from Seattle to D.C.

Part 3: 'SiCKO' Seeds an Expanding Movement

by Donna Smith, American SiCKO

DENVER -- Today I heard about another incredible post-'SiCKO' event in Seattle. Over 200 people packed the largest room at Seattle Central Community College to hear from a panel of inspirational caregivers, activists, and public health advocates. John Geyman of Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP) spoke as well as a nurse whose experiences left people in tears.

A volunteer who traveled to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina also spoke at the gathering. She sustained major burns from a propane accident and with no insurance, is now thousands in debt. That sounded all too familiar after watching the 9/11 first responders' stories in 'SiCKO.'

The panel was a success, not only because of the wonderful speakers who were able to tie together different aspects of public health, but because of the overwhelming number of energized people who were ready to become an active part of the movement for universal healthcare.

How awesome is this? From one Washington to the other. People are organizing for change and for action.

Before I left Washington, D.C., I sat back and marveled at the beginnings of this social revolution and how a movie like 'SiCKO' can play a role in that process. Will my generation finally take its blinders off, step up to the plate yet again and come back to the political table in force? "Make Love Not War," we cried so long ago. Are we now ready to cry “Health Care Not Warfare?”

As I sat on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial looking out over the Mall and the Reflecting Pool, I imagined what Martin Luther King, Jr., saw all those years ago. A sea of people – a sea of Americans -- joined to rally for change. It did not happen overnight. King’s dream of a better nation continues to fuel a passion for political activism, a non-violent transformation and reclamation of government by and for the people.

'SiCKO' is drawing us out of our homes and drawing many of us out of our shame and despair. And the tide is rising from coast to coast. People leave movie theaters energized for change and angry at delay.

Join up with one of the groups out there working or start your own and connect with us.

We stand at the ready from sea-to-shining-sea, waiting for our opportunity to take to the streets joined together to see that the human right of health care is granted to every American.

Here’s a partial list of groups so you – yes, you – can join in this movement. It’s time to reclaim America.

1. HealthCare-Now
2. Physicians for a National Health Program
3. Progressive Democrats of America
4. Code Pink
5. California Nurses Association
7. APUHC - American Patients for Universal Health Care - email apuhc@comcast.net

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Saturday, July 21, 2007 7:00 PM

The Growing Storm: 'SiCKO' Draws Activists Together from Seattle to D.C.

Part 1 of 3
SiCKO Testifies Before Congress

By Donna Smith, American SiCKO

WASHINGTON, D.C. – There is a growing storm throughout America. 'SiCKO' has launched the health care reform movement into the national arena with lightning-rod intensity. Groups that have labored alone and new groups forming are joining forces to settle in for the civil rights battle of this generation. We will stand together for passage of universal health care reform. And we will not wait another generation.

It had already been an extraordinary 48 hours. I testified in front of Congress on Tuesday, July 17, and told them how angry I am that they have not acted on health care reform. I sat on a witness panel with incredibly intelligent and committed people from Harvard Law School (Elizabeth Warren) and Harvard Medical School (David Himmelstein, also the founder of Physicians for a National Health Program) and the Access Project in Boston (Mark Rukavina).

Me, Donna Smith, average American, testified with these people. I was and am in awe. In the packed gallery of the hearing room were nurses and national health care reform leaders. Leaders from anti-war advocacy groups were also there. Groups represented at the hearing included: the California Nurses Association, Code Pink, HealthCare-Now and the Progressive Democrats of America, among others.

In the hours before and after the hearing, I met with Senators Ken Salazar, D-Colo., and Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., and lobbied not with money but with my heart and soul.

Later on during my trip, I visited with Sen. Tom Daschle, who no longer serves in the Senate, but sure should still be there. Though there is nothing to be gained by him in meeting with me, and my station in life certainly does not compare with his, he never fails to make me feel welcome to speak my mind and heart. He was the first person in Congress ever to hear me out on health care crisis – and he applauds my ever-expanding activism.

But my activism is not the only political passion expanding for health care reform in the weeks following the release of 'SiCKO.' Americans are gathering in many locations throughout the nation to plan post-'SiCKO' action.

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