Leader Blues

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

TOP STORY >> Top doctor: Must pass health bill

By GARRICK FELDMAN
Leader editor-in-chief

Arkansas’ top physician says the nation’s health-care system is “a mess” and needs an overhaul to ensure health care for all citizens.

Dr. Joe Thompson, the state’s surgeon general since 2005, says as insurance premiums skyrocket and health-care expenses take up one-sixth of the nation’s gross domestic product, it is time to rein in costs while providing near-universal care.

Thompson, a Huckabee appointee and a pediatrician, spoke Monday to the Jacksonville Rotary Club, where he gave a history of health care since the Second World War, when many workers received health insurance benefits instead of pay increases because there was a wage freeze.

Thompson believes the health-care bill that passed in the House and is before the Senate could lead to improvements in the system, which is very expensive while 50 million people remain uninsured.

“Our system couldn’t be more messed up if we sat down at a table and tried to mess it up,” he said.

Thompson said he hoped “we’ll wind up with legislation that will move health care forward.” He also favors tort reform that would limit malpractice awards and bring down costs.

“I’m excited and I’m a little scared,” Thompson said. “It will not be completely fixed, but we’ll never get to that point.”

The doctor said after his speech that he would support a public option if insurance remains unavailable to those without coverage.

“If private insurance can’t do it, there should be a trigger for a public option. That will give the private sector an incentive to deliver,” he told The Leader.

“We’re ethically obligated to make certain that all citizens have access to insurance,” he said.

He reminded Rotarians that the system has worked well for most workers, retirees and young people, but still leaves many uninsured and often puts them deep in debt after a health crisis.

The system is often wasteful, he said, with too many expensive medical tests, such as MRIs and CAT scans, which are not always needed. Patients expect such tests, and doctors often order them to protect themselves from malpractice suits.

Health care in the U.S. costs at least twice what other countries spend on health care because of wasteful spending, Thompson said.

“The Arkansas Medical Society will run me out for saying that,” he said.

To provide equal coverage for everyone, insurance companies must stop discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions, he told the Rotary Club.

Thompson has pushed for more insurance coverage for poor children, campaigned against obesity, as well as encouraged more exercise and preventive care.

He also spoke about the swine flu, which looks like an epidemic from 60 years ago, which may explain why the elderly are not as affected by it since they may have been exposed to it once before.

He urged Rotarians to get vaccinated. The vaccine is fatal in one in a million cases, while there have been 18 deaths from swine flu in the state since August.

The best way to avoid the flu is to wash hands often with soap.