Two Differing Views On A Better Remedy

Health Care Overhaul Maryland Voices

Doctors Wade Into Politics To Influence Debate Over Bill

December 23, 2009|By Paul West | Paul West,paul.west@baltsun.com

Dr. Zaneb Beams is doing everything she can to get Congress to approve health care legislation. Dr. F. Michael Gloth III is trying just as hard to kill it.

"Lobbyist" is not a title these Baltimore-area doctors would give themselves, but Gloth and Beams are advocates in the biggest lobbying fight of the decade: the overhaul of America's health care system.

Members of Congress shaping a final legislative product have been responsive to efforts by members of the medical profession, who have been deeply involved for months. Just the other day, an aggressive lobbying campaign by physicians and hospital executives was credited with blocking a key element of the Senate health care measure, a proposal that would have let Americans between the ages of 55 and 65 buy into the Medicare program.

A Christmas Eve vote on the Senate's overhaul plan is now in sight. If, as expected, the Democrats prevail, a House-Senate conference committee would have to reconcile the differing plans of the two chambers, which would then have to each ratify the compromise.

The legislative deal-making will be heavily influenced by months of closed-door meetings among lawmakers or their staffs and the legion of traditional Washington lobbyists who are well paid to advance their clients' interests.

AARP, for example, is widely credited with helping to persuade lawmakers to add a provision that would close the "doughnut hole" in Medicare drug plans, at an estimated cost of at least $20 billion, which some Democrats expect the drug industry to pick up.

But one of AARP's top lobbyists, Nancy LeaMond, has said that the most influential advocates in this year's health care struggle are those who have brought organizational tactics from political campaigns into the health care debate.

For instance, conservative opponents of the Democratic initiative were successful in stoking a "kind of wildfire," she said, "over anything that involves the government." A well-known example: the furor over end-of-life issues, fed by false rumors of government "death panels," which rattled members of Congress at their town hall meetings in August.

Gloth and Beams differ sharply over how best to fix a system that each sees as badly broken. Perhaps surprisingly, given their opposing views, they have more than a little in common.

Idealistic and hard-working, they grew up in local households tied to the business of medicine. Somehow, each finds time to fit political activism into a busy life as a full-time doctor and parent of young children.

Beams, 37, a pediatrician from Ellicott City, is trying to mobilize practicing physicians - individuals not normally given to political activism - around issues such as changing the way doctors are paid.

"Obviously, I get to solve small problems here every day," she said in an interview at her Columbia office. "But I've always been interested in the bigger picture as well."

Last winter, she joined Doctors for America, an outgrowth of a physicians group from Barack Obama's presidential campaign. She e-mailed her personal contact list, asking physician friends to sign an online petition that was designed to draw them into the political process. When more than 1,000 replies came back within 36 hours, the group gave her a leadership position. She's now organizing doctors in Maryland and eight other states as a deputy field director.

"Legislators want to hear from us, and their staff want to hear from us," she said. "As physicians, we have an area of expertise and a sort of moral authority, and it's important to raise that voice in the political process."

She has led efforts to prod doctors and medical students into contacting lawmakers by mail, phone or in person, and she has gone door to door in her office complex and at the hospital to promote the Democratic plan. She took part in a Rose Garden event with Obama, was featured on PBS' "News Hour" and on MSNBC, and appeared in a video on the White House Web site.

Still, Beams said, she cringed when a close friend from college phoned and said, " 'Thank you for all your lobbying on behalf of health care reform.' And I said, 'I'm not a lobbyist!' "

A wife and mother of four children younger than 10 years old, she rises most days between 6 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. "Sometimes," the doctor said with a laugh, "I'm up at 3 in the morning."

Like Beams, whom he has never met, Gloth has been pushing his private ideas in the public arena. The goal: to influence Congress by changing public opinion.

Recent national polling has found that a plurality of Americans now oppose the plan being debated in Washington. But Gloth, who strongly opposes the legislation, takes issue with the notion that his side is winning.

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