As a retired Utah physician, I was one of the few docs unburdened with the demands of patients care and could attend all 12 days of the recent Doctors for America Patients Over Politics (POP) Bus Tour which started in Tampa, FL and concluded in Charlotte, NC. Physically grueling at times…some days hitting the road at dawn, returning to lodging well after midnight, and enduring all-day, outdoor events in subtropical, summer weather…it was nevertheless a gratifying experience. Feeling a bit sleep deprived and thoroughly baked, I flew home with a sense of ‘mission accomplished’ and that I had indeed made a difference by educating my fellow citizens about health care reform. Some reflections:
Days 3 and 6.…the campus scene. At the University of South Florida in Tampa and the University of Florida in Gainesville, we met a few students who had already experienced financial hardship due to severe illnesses They were happy to know that under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) an additional 3 million young adults were now covered under their parents health insurance to age 26. The politically aware knew of the new health care law and were supportive. But most of the students I spoke with were unfamiliar with the law or the political controversy surrounding it. But without fixed opinions or minds confused with misinformation, I found fertile ground for education. Will this generation of young adults be the leading edge of American citizens who will look back at this era the same way we look back at the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960’s, and wonder; why was access to affordable, quality health care at all controversial?
Days 4 and 8...religious communities. Walk into a random house of worship in America, proclaim your support for the ACA, and you could be met with overt hostility, joyful agreement, or experience multiple reactions in-between these two extremes. Such is the intensity of political polarization of our country in 2012 that it even permeates spiritual communities. At the Macedonia Church of Eatonville, FLand the Bible Way Church of Columbia, SC (after a moving Sunday morning service) our POP tour found at least two religious communities supportive of the ACA. Could it be that their support for heath care equality and justice stems from their first hand experiences with social inequality and injustice?
Day 5...taking the heat in Tampa. At 9am on the last day of the Republican National Convention, our POP team set up camp in Tampa’s Lykes Gaslight Square Park. A few blocks from the impressively large security perimeter that Tampa had placed around the convention sight, some business around the park had shut down because of fears of civil disturbances. Foot traffic through the park was light but steady. For the next 9 hours, and with the thermometer topping out at 96 degrees, we distributed handouts, spoke with passers-by, and marched in the street…escorted by mountain bike riding security officers who handed us must appreciated bottles of water. We met a handful of the angry-sort that wanted to vent and were not interested in meaningful discussion. But the vast majority of our conversations were civil as we discussed the ACA with supporters and opponents. At noontime, I entered a sandwich shop for lunch and air conditioning. A local attorney spotted me in my white coat and black ‘Patients over Politics” tee-shirt and gave me a scolding for my misguided advocacy efforts. We sat down together for lunch and he shared the plight of his two young daughters, one with a severe immune deficiency and the other with a severe autoimmune disease. He had struggled mightily with his “excellent” private health insurance to get these kids the expensive therapies they needed. He feared that the new law would impose a government bureaucracy that would be even more difficult to deal with. Thirty minutes later we parted ways with handshakes and smiles. Did I turn him into a supporter of the ACA?…probably not. Did I easy the fears of a concerned father?…definitely. I spoke to hundreds of people during those 12 days but this was my single most gratifying conversation…a single half-hour that made the entire trip worthwhile.
Day 9,…educating in Charlotte. On Labor Day, the day before the start of the Democratic National Convention, our big blue 42’ RV became a landmark on Tryon Street as we educated the bustling crowds attending CarolinaFest. Opponents of the ACA claim that Congress jammed down our throats a law that no one wanted or needed. As our POP team was mobbed by admirers of our education efforts and eager signers of our declaration of support for the ACA, it became nothing but clear that Americans are tired of a health system that denies access to too many and costs too much for the rest.
Day 11.…poor women in inner-city Charlotte. Our POP team set up shop at a community center/house of worship in a low income neighborhood that 30 years earlier had been one of the most violent in the US. A volunteer group was distributing backpacks with school supplies to neighborhood kids as our team educated and checked blood pressures. As the kids happily moved through, I spoke with the moms and grandmothers accompanying them and questioned them about their health care concerns. The kids health insurance…Medicaid; moms and grandmas…none! A stark reminder that if you are a low income care-giver raising children in many states, you need to be more than poor to get on Medicaid…you need to be desperately poor. North Carolina requires a household income for a family of 4 with dependent children to be less than $7128 a year…about 31% of Federal Poverty Level…for caregivers to qualify for Medicaid. Moralizing opponents of the ACA’s planned Medicaid Expansion (including, to my ongoing horror, physicians) would wag fingers at this population of women and preach about moral hazard, government dependency, poor choices, and absence of personal responsibility. But our resident wise-man of the POP tour would disagree. A inspiring non-physician, veteran of the Nuns on the Bus tour, and unabashed admirer of Sister Simone Campbell, he regularly remained us of this New Testament admonition from Matthew 25:40 - ‘…whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me’
All 12 days…the ‘Patients over Politics’ theme. Throughout our travels, packed into our big, blue RV or wearing our black tee-shirts, both emblazoned with the POP logo, we were eye catching. In gas stations, motel parking lots and lobbies, restaurants and on the street, we turned heads. Clerks, waitresses, managers, shoppers, the homeless, fellow travelers-of-the-road…ACA supporters and opponents…stopped us and inquired. Supports thanked us, the undecided or unaware questioned us, and the unconvinced debated with us. All came away with new information and perspectives.
One last comment. Memo to the next organizers of a summertime-in-the Sun Belt bus tour. Could you please replace those all-black with white lettering POP tee-shirts with a more sun reflective white variant?