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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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Dr. Margaret Flowers is a pediatrician from Sparks. She stopped practicing medicine two years ago to devote herself full-time to advocating for single-payer health care. She serves as co-chair for Physicians for a National Health Program, and is also a member of Healthcare-Now of Maryland. Flowers was arrested twice in her effort to push for health-care reform: She was one of the so-called Baucus Eight who were arrested at the May Senate Finance Committee hearing, and she violated her probation on that arrest to participate in the CareFirst protest in Baltimore, where she was again hauled off in handcuffs. Flowers was charged with unlawful conduct on Capitol grounds for her Baucus committee arrest, for which she received six months' probation, and with trespassing and disorderly conduct for her arrest at CareFirst. Those charges were eventually nolle prossed.

I went into the practice of medicine thinking it was the doctors and patients who made the decisions about what was the best care for patients, and that there would be a certain amount of respect for the knowledge that physicians gained after many years of studying and training. But instead what I found is the insurance companies that you bump into at every level--in the hospital, in your practice, in the pharmacy--are not making decisions based on sound medical practice. Initially, I was surprised by it, and then I started to get curious about why it was that way. One thing led to another, and it's been about five or six years now that I've been trying to educate myself and others about health-care reform and fighting for it.

One of the things we learned this year is that the regular physician's voice is not heard in Congress. They hear from special-interest groups, and many of those have somewhat corporate affiliations. And many of the people that were involved in devising the numbers about health policies didn't really understand health policy. So we brought doctors and nurses and other health providers into Congress and we met with members of Congress and we presented them with packets of information about health policy and we also spoke to them about our real experiences with real patients, about what the reality is, why we are losing primary-care doctors, why our health outcomes are bad, just a voice they haven't heard before.

We spoke to everybody, we didn't limit it to any kind of affiliation. People who believe in a free-market [health-care] model would say, "Well, we think that there should be competition." So we would say, "Well, explain to us how that would work, how does competition improve health care?" And they couldn't. Then, we would say, "This is what it actually does to health care, and this is why the real competition we want to have is between doctors and hospitals. If everybody can come to see you, then you are competing based on who's the best [provider], not which insurance company covers you."

The first committee to take up health care was Sen. Baucus' Finance Committee, and so the Leadership Conference [for Guaranteed Healthcare] sent a letter and requested that one of our representatives be present. They had 41 people testifying over three days at these roundtables. It became very clear that they did not want our voice to be included. [But] if you talk about universality, single-payer wins, if you talk about cost saving, single-payer wins. They didn't want to hear that.

We were actually prepared to testify that day if need be, and as the roundtable was opening, the first member stood up and he said, "Why aren't you allowing single-payer on the table? We have three doctors here, will you let one of them testify?" And he was arrested. I stood up next and said, "I'm Dr. Margaret Flowers, and I speak on behalf of the true stakeholders," because they kept calling the people at the table the stakeholders, and we're going, "The pharmacy [representatives] are not the stakeholders." So I said, "It's the patients and the providers who want a national health program." And they arrested me.

We knew we were risking arrest. It was a public hearing, but they weren't allowing the public to speak. They gave us unlawful conduct and disruption of Congress. That actually caries a six-month sentence, it was a little more than we expected. We just had our probation hearing last week. But the effect was actually rather positive. Sen. [Ted] Kennedy [D.-Mass.] was still alive at that point, and his office reached out to us, and I was the first person to testify at his committee hearing when they brought up health care.

The more you learn about what is going on and why we don't have real reform, and what health-insurance companies are able to get away with, I came to a point where I felt like if I was going to make a difference, I was going to have to do this full-time. So many of my friends were leaving their practices and just giving up. I now do this full-time.

This is a matter of life or death for people. My outrage is at the fact that our government is not acting in the best interests of the people, and they are getting away with it. It's just unacceptable. You can work a job, you can pay your premiums, you can do all the things you are supposed to do, and then you get sick, and you lose everything. And it can happen to any one of us.

Part of the reason I became a doctor is because I care about people. So I can't see this happening and not do something about it.

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