Congressman Tom Price visits Rowan Regional

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 2, 2012

By Karissa Minn
SALISBURY — The leader of a Republican health care reform effort in Congress visited Salisbury on Monday to speak with local hospital officials and doctors.
U.S. Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee, joined Richard Hudson, Republican candidate for U.S. House District 8, in his visit to Rowan Regional Medical Center. The two met with the hospital’s president, Dari Caldwell, and about a half-dozen other staff members.
Hudson and Price said they want to repeal President Barack Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare.” If elected to replace Rep. Larry Kissell, Hudson said he wants to help pass an alternative like Price’s proposed “Empowering Patients First Act.”
“I’m interested in hearing some of your ideas and some of your concerns about where the policy is heading right now,” Hudson said, “but also some solutions and the ways it ought to be going.”
Anesthesiologists and emergency physicians at the meeting said they’re worried about implementing the reforms.
“Most doctors don’t have a clue what the future holds,” said Dr. Rachel Ross, medical director of laboratories.
She said she anticipates fights among patients, doctors and hospitals over coverage and payment.
Price said his own frustration as a practicing physician was what made him decide to run for office.
“I realized that there were folks in the state capital and in Washington that adversely affected what I could do for my patients,” he said.
Price worked as an orthopedic surgeon in Atlanta for more than 20 years before being elected to Congress in 2004.
He said he believes health care costs are rising while access to and quality of care is decreasing. Obama’s plan, he said, “violates all of the principles we hold dear and you hold dear.”
“But the status quo is unacceptable as well,” Price said.
Price said Hudson would be a great help in Congress to pass a different kind of reform, which he says would put more power in the hands of patients and their doctors.
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Many of the issues discussed Monday were related to the fear of lawsuits. Doctors said they must run a battery of tests, even if they believe most are not needed, or risk getting sued for medical malpractice.
Instead of having to prove that they did everything possible, Price said, physicians should be allowed to defend themselves so that “if a doctor does the right thing, they basically can’t be sued.”
Hospital staff also said they face an overload of non-emergency patients in the emergency department, but they can’t direct those patients elsewhere. Federal law requires hospitals to treat anyone who comes in with an “emergency condition,” and the definition of that term can be at the center of expensive lawsuits.
The hospital may never get paid for the care it’s required to give to patients without health insurance.
Overall, Caldwell said, very few of the hospital’s patients — 4,000 out of 21,000 last year — are covered by private insurance companies. The rest either have no insurance at all or government coverage through Medicare or Medicaid, which reimburse health care providers at certain set rates.
“We’ve tried to structure Rowan Regional so that we could provide quality care at Medicare reimbursement,” she said. “We figure with the reform, if it sticks, is basically going to be funded at that rate, so we better figure out how to provide care at that rate to survive.”
Dr. Eric Knorr, an anesthesiologist, said his field can’t stand to treat many more people on government-paid insurance. Already, close to half of their patients have Medicare or Medicaid, and the reimbursement rate is “abysmal.”
Another anesthesiologist, Dr. Ryan Rich, summed up his feelings by saying, “What I want from the government is to get out of my way and let me take care of my patients.”
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Under Price’s proposal, individuals whose employers don’t provide health insurance would be able to join nationwide pools of applicants, choosing from a variety of insurance plans. Buying in groups and sharing the risk allows prices to come down, Price said.
This also could help provide coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, Price said. Right now, these individuals can only join high-risk pools within their state.
Obama’s plan will require most Americans to buy insurance, which Democratic backers say will help drive down the cost of premiums. Republicans in Congress have spoken out against that individual mandate, saying the government will be taking the power of choice away from individuals. Price agrees with them.
“We do think we’ve got to get folks covered,” he said. “The way to do that, without forcing people to buy the kind of coverage that Washington wants them to have, is to make it so that every American citizen has the financial ability to purchase the coverage they want.” Hudson said he supports the basics of Price’s plan, though he hasn’t yet read the full document. “I believe it’s the right approach,” Hudson said. “We’ve got to get the federal government out between doctors and their patients.”
Kissell, a Democrat who currently represents the 8th District, actually voted to repeal health care earlier this month.
But Hudson said that was a calculated move to help Kissell gain political support, and he criticized the incumbent for not taking earlier opportunities to help repeal the law.
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.