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Single-Payer-Minded

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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Charles Loubert is a retired counseling psychologist who lives in Southwest Baltimore. Loubert, who is 81 years old, was arrested on Oct. 29, 2009, when he and a group of 30 supporters of single-payer health care held a rally outside the offices of CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield in Canton. Loubert was one of four people arrested that day. He was charged with trespassing and disorderly conduct. Despite the fact that his case was nolle prosequi--not prosecuted--by the State's Attorney's Office, a warrant was issued for Loubert's arrest in December 2009. Officers showed up on his doorstep early one morning, handcuffed him, and hauled him down to Central Booking again, where he was held until a court commissioner determined that the warrant was issued in error. Loubert is a member of Veterans for Peace, as well as Healthcare-Now of Maryland.

I'm a retired psychological counselor. I was a school counselor and I worked with adults, as well, in the community and at a health clinic.A 

I can do this because I pretty much have my time as my own.A  And that's not heroic, that's just convenience.A  There are many people that I know who feel the same way I do, but they've got jobs, they've got families. I'm a little bit of a rabble-rouser, you know, and at my age what do I have to lose?A 

We went to CareFirst, to their office is at the 1st Mariner Tower [in Canton]. About 30 of us went there. We were protesting at the front door, and they had the doors locked because they didn't want us to come in.

We were protesting and so on, and then Margaret Flowers and Eric Naumburg, two doctors, and Kevin Zeese and Del. Jill Carter [D-41st District] went to the back door and talked to a representative of CareFirst and asked them to stop denying doctor-ordered procedures, and said they wanted to speak with the CEO of the company.A  And the representative said, "Well, we'll put it in writing and we'll consider it."A  Fat chance was my silent answer when they came back.A 

So anyway the four of us decided, including Margaret and Eric and another lady who is a teacher, we decided we're going to risk arrest if necessary to get the point across.A The plan was we were going to go into the lobby, all 30 of us, and then when they asked us to leave, four of us would not leave.A  Well, what they had done is, apparently, they had notified the police.A So as soon as we rounded the corner to go to the door, the 30 of us were surrounded. Out of the blue came about 40, I think--there were more of them than there were of us--Baltimore police. They came racing to the door to keep us out.A 

The other three got in because they were quicker [than me], but my old bones beat this one younger cop to the door, and we got in and we sat on the floor, and the manager of the building asked us to leave, the police asked us, and we said no.A They handcuffed us and took us out into the paddy wagon, and they took us off to Central Booking.A 

I hate to say it, but I was a little ashamed of our country.A We do so many good things, and we are a haven for people from all over the world to come here to be citizens of this country, and yet we do this kind of thing.

Eric Naumburg is a retired pediatrician from Columbia. Today, he says he sees more and more doctors in the Howard County area getting out of traditional medical practices and setting up "concierge" practices, where individuals pay a large membership fee each year for guaranteed access to the physicians of their choice--a luxury for those who can afford it, an impossibly expensive proposition for most. Naumburg was arrested at the Oct. 29 protest in the lobby of CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield's offices in Canton. He was charged with trespassing and disorderly conduct. The charges were eventually nolle prossed. Naumburg is a member of Physicians for a National Health Program and Healthcare-Now of Maryland.

Most people don't understand what the term single-payer means, because it's a technical term, but it's a one-payer system, like Medicare used to be, that pays for the care, but the care is provided privately. . . . Since this debate has gone on, single-payer has been systematically taken off the table. It's not included at all. When the Baucus [Senate Finance] committee had hearings on health reform back in May, the room was filled with lobbyists, health insurers, pharmacies, all the people you would expect. But there was not one person representing patients' interests in the room. Nor was there anybody there representing doctors' interests.

The people who were struggling, in my practice, were the ones who didn't qualify for Medicaid. They had jobs and they were doing what they should be doing. And they were the people you had to go back and look in the sample closet to see if you could find antibiotics for a child who was sick, that kind of thing. A lot of them would just stop coming because they just couldn't afford it.

We have a very expensive, very poorly run health system. And there's no system to it--it's a mishmash. And the biggest waste in the system is all this administrative stuff. It makes practicing medicine very unpleasant because at every turn you have to worry about, Well what does this person's insurance cover? What forms am I going to have to fill out to make the insurance company happy, so they'll pay? To make the pharmaceutical plan happy so they'll give out the drug that I think the patient needs? You're fighting with the private insurers to get care for people. . . . fighting with people who don't really understand.

One of my last cases was a real frustration for me. I had a 3-month-old who had noisy breathing and his mother was working and she had private insurance, Aetna. I wanted to get this child seen by two or three specialists, and they had the family going to--instead of the people that I know and know were good--they had them going to a cardiologist that I'd never heard of at one place and a pulmonary clinic at another, then finally they ended up at an ENT [ear, nose, throat specialist] down in Washington. They had them going all over the place. . . . And the bottom line is I didn't know he ended up in Washington, I never got a chance to talk to the ENT doctors down there. They ended up doing a tonsillectomy, which on a 3-month-old is pretty unusual. I wanted them to just look for an underlying cause, and I never got a chance to tell them what I was thinking about. When I got a chance to talk to the surgeon three days later, I told them "I was hoping you guys happened to get a biopsy," and he said "No, if you'd told us that we would have done it, that's a good idea." . . . It's that kind of thing. That's just an example, but it happens all the time.

When we were doing the protest at the CareFirst building, there were a lot of police around. We started talking to them about their medical coverage, and they have issues, they have gaps in their coverage. The people arrested in Washington had the same experience with the guards. When I was in Central Booking in Baltimore, there were two of us in the cell, we were wearing our T-shirts, and . . . the minute they found out what we were doing, they were very supportive of us. It's all levels of society who know that their health insurance is not working for them. It's universal.

[Physicians] are leaving primary care in droves. It's a real problem here. The health commissioner in Howard County has been having meetings about the lack of primary-care providers. Howard County is the richest county in the richest state in the nation, and they're having trouble finding enough primary-care providers. People aren't going into primary care anymore--they want to become specialists because it's very hard to make a go of it as a primary care provider, because of the insurance reimbursement issues. Doctors want to be able to practice medicine without feeling like being in a mill, which is what it's like. You have to churn out so many patients just to get enough reimbursements.

In a wealthy country like this, everybody should have access to health care without having to worry about how to pay for it.

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