Insurance question divides Oklahoma physicians

By Jim Killackey

A new national study reports an increasing number of American doctors support national health insurance.

Many Oklahoma physicians are skeptical of the idea.

A study in the Annals of Internal Medicine, a leading medical journal, reports that a survey last year of 2,200 physicians showed 59 percent “support government legislation to establish national health insurance,â€? while 32 percent oppose it and 9 percent are neutral.

A similar survey in 2002 showed support from 49 percent of physician respondents, with 40 percent opposed. 


How would it work?

National insurance plans typically involve a federally administered social-insurance fund that guarantees health care coverage for everyone, much like Medicare does for senior citizens.

Plans typically eliminate or substantially reduce the role of private insurance companies in the health care financing system, but still allow patients to go to doctors of their choice.

“Across the board, more physicians feel that our fragmented and for-profit insurance system is obstructing good patient care, and a majority now support national insurance as the remedy,â€? said Dr. Ronald T. Ackermann, associate director of the Center for Health Policy and Professionalism Research at Indiana University’s School of Medicine. He was co-author of the study.

Ada physician Dr. Jim Wight, though, said the only way any national health insurance plan could work is to have major reforms on medical malpractice insurance and their high rates among all doctors.

“This is rarely mentioned as part of the problem of the cost of medicine, but it is,â€? Wight said.


What do Oklahoma doctors think?

Ken King, executive director of the 5,000-member Oklahoma State Medical Association based in Oklahoma City, said, “There’s a general feeling about the OSMA-physician members that they don’t support national health insurance, but the study findings do reflect a growing sense of frustration among physicians over reimbursement issues and patient-access to care.â€?

As an example, King cited Medicare reimbursement rates that are expected to be reduced by 10.6 percent in July.

“Without Congressional action, the payment formula governing annual Medicare payment updates will produce disastrous effects for physicians who soon won’t be able to afford to see Oklahoma’s elderly and disabled,â€? King said.

Oklahoma physicians will lose about $130 million for the care of elderly and disabled patients from July 2008 through December 2009 due to the proposed 10.6 percent cuts in Medicare payments, he said.

“My sense is that there is growing frustration from Oklahoma physicians about the lack of will in Congress and the Bush administration to fix the system,â€? he said.

Favoring national health insurance is Dr. Priya Samant, a physician at Healthy Hands Health Care Services for the Homeless in Oklahoma City.

“I do strongly support national health care insurance. I work with so many homeless patients, and a large number of them are homeless because they don’t have any health care,â€? Samant said.

“Health care right now is so fragmented. I don’t see any better alternatives.â€?

In the Annals of Internal Medicine study, support for national insurance is strong among psychiatrists, pediatric doctors and emergency-medicine physicians.

Fifty-five percent of general surgeons support national health insurance — doubling their level of support since 2002, according to the study.

Doctors have expressed concern about lack of patient access to care due to rising costs and patients’ insufficient levels of insurance, the study notes.

Currently, an estimated 47 million Americans lack health insurance coverage and another 50 million are considered underinsured.

At the same time, health care costs in the United States are rising at the rate of about 7 percent a year, twice the rate of inflation, according to the study.


Big concern in election

The health care issue continues to rank high among voter concerns in the 2008 election season, placing third in a recent poll after the economy and Iraq.

The study by Indiana University researchers is the largest survey ever conducted among doctors on the issue of health care financing reform.

It is based on a random sampling of names obtained from the American Medical Association‘s master list of physicians throughout the country.

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