When the angry mobs were descending on health care reform meetings this summer, one group was noticeably absent: doctors. Dr. Gene Uphoff thinks he knows why.
"Physicians are fairly timid and cautious," says Uphoff, a former Madison resident who now practices in Portland, Ore.
Uphoff and five of his colleagues want to change that. They bought a used Winnebago and painted it with the moniker "Mad As Hell Doctors," inspired by the movie Network. And as the famous line from the movie goes, they're not going to take this anymore.
The six docs are taking a few weeks off, driving in a "Care-a-Van" from Oregon to Washington, D.C., stopping in 26 cities along the way to advocate for reform.
"We decided to adopt the name because we wanted to dispel the myth that doctors take everything with thoughtful resignation," Uphoff says in a phone interview. "We're really tired of the fact that the United States is 38th in the world in terms of common health measurements."
Uphoff, 67, grew up on a farm south of Madison until he was 10, when his family moved to Minneapolis. He returns frequently to visit family, including his brother Chuck, the former head of WYOU.
The Mad as Hell Doctors will speak in Madison on Thursday, Sept. 17, at the
First Unitarian Society, 2-4 p.m. They'll participate in a rally at the state Capitol, State Street entrance, at 5 p.m. And from 6:30 to 8 p.m., the docs are holding a fundraiser at the Dardanelles restaurant, 1851 Monroe St.
To drive their point home, they'll pass out "health care misfortune cookies," each with a true story of private health insurance at work. One cookie reads: "Son was in a serious bicycle accident with head and facial injuries requiring emergency surgery to repair his jaw and replace missing teeth. Because insurer considered the surgery 'dental,' insurance claims were denied. You owe $65,000."
"We're the only industrialized country in the world," Uphoff says, "where people are forced into bankruptcy because of medical expenses."
Private insurance means headaches for doctors, too. One insurance company recently gave Uphoff a list of 193 drugs it is no longer willing to pay for. "I'm supposed to keep this list of 193 in my mind when I pick up a prescription pad," he says. And that's just for one company: "They all have their own restrictions."
Uphoff admires President Obama, but thinks his health care plan is "doomed to failure" because it won't contain costs. "If we really want to have health care reform that gives the best value for the dollar, it has to be single payer."
Single payer is a system where everyone pays for health insurance through his or her taxes and everyone is covered in the same risk pool. (The doctors and hospitals remain private.)
Uphoff realizes that, after decades of misinformation, much of the public is frightened by proposed changes to the system. When President Truman tried to reform health care after World War II, the American Medical Association fought it with the term "socialized medicine," Uphoff says. They knew, in the postwar era, "this term would strike fear in the hearts of anybody who heard it."
It still does.
"People have this fear of socialized medicine without even understanding what it means," says Uphoff. "We have socialized medicine for our veterans. The VA quality of care turns out to be better than even the best HMOs that we have."
Even though single payer isn't on the table, Uphoff believes it will eventually come back "because we can't sustain spending 18% of GDP on health care. Canada does it with 10%."
Interestingly, Uphoff agrees with some conservative commentators in opposing a "public insurance option," albeit for different reasons. The conservatives say the plan will drive insurers out of business, forcing more people onto the public plan. He says private insurers will continue to cherry pick, forcing the unhealthiest people into the public plan.
"The cost will be so much that the right wing will say, 'See, the government couldn't do this right.'"
Uphoff believes the only way to correct what's wrong with the current system is to undercut what's making it dysfunctional: "It's pretty simple. Take the profit out of the system."