Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Talking Health Reform with President Clinton

“I’ll be surprised if we don’t get health care reform,” President Clinton said yesterday.

I should note two things about that statement—first of all, coming from someone with such an informed view of the situation, it is encouraging. Secondly, I didn’t get that quote from a press release or a conference call. I was actually sitting next to Clinton in a conference room where a few other bloggers and I had the chance to converse with him about health care, clean energy, and some of his projects at the Clinton Foundation.

Now, since most of my conversations take place in my home office with a speaker phone, a digital recorder, and frantic attempts to keep the dogs from barking and none of them typically involve sitting with a former leader of the free world, clearly this was an amazing experience.

Given its traction right now it was no surprise that we spent a lot of time discussing health care and health reform. As a resident of Massachusetts and a rare disease patient,
I came prepared with questions about primary care shortages with increased access to insurance as well as the treatment of existing chronic diseases.

Perhaps the comparisons between the current push for health care reform and Clinton’s efforts in the 1990s are inevitable, but the overriding sentiment I got yesterday was that yes, things really are different now. For one, Clinton noted the political and psychological landscape the Obama administration faces is much different. Disparate groups like health insurance companies, small businesses, and many other groups with different stakes in the debate are more willing to collaborate.

More tellingly, as Clinton said, “everything is worse now.” I know many readers of this blog can attest to that fact. Fifty million Americans remain uninsured, and as I mentioned to a fellow blogger before the meeting started, those who are underinsured often face calamitous situations. Adjusting for inflation, we have two-thirds of the disposable income we had when Clinton left office, and health care costs have doubled.

We’ve heard much of this before—our system is the most expensive but has poor outcomes; for our economic and physical health, reform is imperative; better prevention and care now means a healthier nation down the road. The real challenge is to change the way health care is delivered while still keeping costs down. It sounds so simple and yet so daunting at the same time, doesn’t it?

The Clinton Foundation is heavily involved in HIV/AIDS care in developing nations, and in discussing some of these initiatives the President mentioned the reluctance governments have to set up stable health care systems that account for malaria, TB, and the other very real health threats that end up affecting so many. As he said that, it occurred to me that our own switch from an acute, reactive system to a preventive, proactive system is no less significant and necessary. A piecemeal approach will not do it.

One of the most common concerns raised about Obama’s public option relates to Medicare reimbursements. (Of course it is the purchasing power of that potentially enormous patient population that many hope will curb health costs with more competitive private rates.) Anyway, an interesting distinction Clinton made is that reimbursement is not the problem; inefficiency is. It makes sense, but when I hear people talking about Medicare and modeling the public insurance option after it, so often the conversation stalls at reimbursements.

Related to this, when pointing to successful delivery models in Green Bay, WI and other places, President Clinton acknowledged that health care is both “an art and a science." A viable public option would need to be outcome-based if we’re to reach a goal of more efficient care.

Obviously there are many compelling reasons to embrace outcome-based treatments. For “clinically interesting” patients like myself, I hope a revamped health care system really does still leave room for the “art”—more often than not, that has made all the difference for me.

(Stay tuned for more posts from this event, but I need to add that not only does President Clinton read blogs and turn to them for information, he has also read Mountains Beyond Mountains and is friends with its main character, Paul Farmer—if you’ve read my post on narrative medicine, you know how fanatical I am about that book. If you care about public health and health disparities, it is an absolute must-read. But don’t just take my word for it, take President Clinton’s as well.)


Obama-mamas.com said...

Curious to know if he actually spoke the words "public option", per thinkprogress. http://thinkprogress.org/2009/06/16/clinton-health-care-meeting

I'm not seeing it and wonder how Clinton's call for a "good bill" has been transformed into a demand for a public option.

Aviva said...

I first met Clinton soon after he took office in '93. I was shocked at how charismatic he was in person, something that I hadn't felt/seen when I saw him on TV.

I'm envious you had the opportunity to meet with him in a small group setting. :-)

I'm hoping he's right that times have changed sufficiently that we might actually get health insurance for everyone in the next few years.

Jeanne said...


It must have been very exciting to discuss health care reform with a former President. That's wonderful. Congratulations.


Laurie said...

Update: should have read “an art and a science." Made the edit right after I posted it but didn't notice it didn't go through. Mea culpa.

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