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Local health-care practitioners explain why they're willing to go to jail in the name of health-care reform

Jennifer Daniel
Photographs by Frank Klien
Dr. Carol Paris
Charles Loubert
Dr. Eric Naumburg
Dr. Margaret Flowers

By Erin Sullivan | Posted 2/3/2010

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Dr. Carol Paris is a practicing psychiatrist from Leonardtown. She was arrested during the May 5 incident at Sen. Max Baucus' Finance Committee meeting, one of eight people locked up. Paris was charged with unlawful conduct on Capitol grounds. She received six months' probation, though the charges were diverted in January. She is a member of Physicians for a National Health Care Program.

Prior to last year, I was working, via volunteer time primarily, with the [physicians' group] Maryland State Medical Society. I did some work for about three years on their legislative committees, and I did a lot of work on pieces of legislation that were designed to try to get the [insurance] industry to play fairly. And what I realized . . . is that it doesn't matter what you get passed in the law. What matters is what the regulations are, and who writes the regulations and enforces the regulations. In the state of Maryland, the regulations were written in large part by the insurance lobby themselves. . . . And the Maryland Insurance Administration is tapped with enforcement of the regulations. And what I've come to realize is that the Maryland Insurance Administration is ineffective. . . . The only trigger for the Maryland Insurance Administration to enforce a law is a complaint. They are not even monitoring, and they don't even enforce unless somebody complains.

We had this bill that was passed in the Maryland Legislature called the Clean Claims Act. It said if you as a physician submit a claim to an insurance company, and you've dotted your "I"s and crossed your "T"s, your forms are all filled out correctly, they have either 30 or 45 days to pay the claim. And if they don't pay in that amount of time, they have to give you interest on the money. . . . I had a case where, the [patient] had two insurers, Medicare and a private insurer. I submit the claim to Medicare, they pay what they are going to pay, then they send the paperwork to the private insurance company, and they are supposed to pay me the rest. I sent $3,000 worth of claims to Medicare. Medicare sent them to CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield. CareFirst put in the wrong provider number [on the forms] and sent my money to a doctor in Fredericksburg, Va. My staff identified the problem within a month, and it took two years to fix it. I kept a list of every interaction with CareFirst over those two years, and I determined that at a rate of $13 an hour, it cost me $13,000 to collect the $3,000 owed to me. I didn't even get interest on the money.

All of this is to paint the picture of the frame of mind I was in last January, when I met Margaret Flowers and realized there were organizations out there that were advocating for a single-payer plan. I was a case in point as a physician of how bureaucratic and wasteful the private insurance industry is in so many ways. It just resonated with me all over the place, and that's why I joined.

It was a combination of that and of being a practicing physician and just seeing day after day after day how the system is abusing doctors and abusing my patients. That reinforces my determination every single day. . . . I jokingly have come up with a new psychiatric diagnosis called PIISD--private insurance-induced stress disorder. When Margaret called me and said, "Do you want to protest at the Senate Finance Committee hearing?" I didn't have to think about it. I said yes.

We decided we weren't going to disrupt in the middle of the proceedings . . . So as soon as Sen. Baucus pounded his gavel, Russell Mokhiber [of Single Payer Action] got up and said basically, "You have repeatedly refused to allow a single-payer spokesperson to address the committee . . . . We have three doctors here, any one of whom could speak to this issue. Will you give them a seat at the table?" And Baucus said that proceedings would adjourn until order can be restored and had Russell arrested. As soon as order was restored, Margaret Flowers got up and spoke for a minute or so, and she was arrested. As soon as order was restored . . . someone else got up and spoke and was arrested, same thing. I was number four. And there were eight of us total. [Activist] Katie Robbins got up and said "We need single payer in this country," and Baucus' reply was "We need more police."

[They] put us in a paddy wagon and we spent five hours sitting on a bench handcuffed to a wall in jail. While we were sitting there talking to the Capitol police, they were telling us their stories of health-insurance woes with their families. They completely got it, what we were doing and why we were doing it. In fact, there was a sign in the jail that said if you are having a medical problem, let us know and we'll get you medical care. In fact, the Supreme Court has ruled that its cruel and unusual punishment to deny a prisoner health care. In Baltimore, you get medically cleared before they will even put you in the general population [at] the jail. So think about it: You have more rights to health care as a prisoner in this country than you do as a law-abiding citizen.

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