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Fayetteville doc outspoken reformer

Says insurance companies just get in the way.

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GARNER: Makes White House call.
  • GARNER: Makes White House call.

About 60 percent of Dr. Hershey Garner's patients are on Medicare, and they're the ones who are happiest with their health care, he says. It's the patients covered by Blue Cross, and other private insurers, who have the big problems, according to Garner. They're the ones who are informed that their insurer won't pay for certain treatment, the ones told to bring thousands of dollars to the hospital the next day if they want a procedure that's already been scheduled.

And that's why Garner, a Fayetteville oncologist, wants a “Medicare for everybody” sort of health-care reform. His support for this sort of reform, and his willingness to talk about it publicly, got him an invitation to the White House for a meeting with President Obama on health care last week. Garner, a member of a pro-reform group called Doctors for America, was one of four physicians who appeared on-stage with Obama, and whose pictures were widely disseminated by the news media. A group of a hundred or so doctors, representing various groups, sat in the audience and heard an address from Obama.

Observers speculated that Garner was chosen for the elite group because he's from Arkansas, and U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas is a member of the Senate Finance Committee, which is working on health care legislation, and she has not been supportive of the kind of bill that Obama wants. Garner said the White House didn't ask him to try to influence Lincoln and other members of the Arkansas congressional delegation, but the White House didn't need to.

“I've been writing letters to Blanche and making phone calls for the last couple of months, since she's been so backward on health care,” Garner said. He's made contact with all the members of the Arkansas congressional delegation, in fact, except for his own congressman, U.S. Rep. John Boozman of the Third District. Boozman, the only Republican in the delegation, is opposed to substantive health-care reform. Garner said he hadn't talked to Boozman because “That's kind of a lost cause, as far as I can tell.”

Although Garner's first choice would be a single-payer, “Medicare for everybody” kind of health care, he's come to believe that an alternate proposal, the “robust government option,” is “probably the best we can hope for at this point.” This proposal would allow the government to offer health insurance in competition with private insurance companies. The insurance companies are violently opposed, and they have allies in Congress, including Lincoln and U.S. Rep. Mike Ross of Arkansas's Fourth District.

“Nobody can explain to me what the insurance companies add to the health-care system,” Garner said, “except to get in between me and my patients.”

Garner recently appeared on a news program with a former American Medical Association president “who wanted to just give the insurance companies more customers,” but he said that few practicing physicians are sympathetic to the private insurers. He cited a recent survey of doctors conducted for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The survey showed that 10 percent of doctors want a single-payer plan in lieu of private insurance, and 63 percent favor the “robust public option.” In other words, three-fourths of doctors want major change in the present health-care system.

The Senate health-care bill omits the government option. Legislation from the House of Representatives includes the government option. Garner said that after his meeting with Obama, “I'm a lot more optimistic than I was last week.”

“I'm hoping that we'll get something more progressive out of the reconciliation committee,” Garner said. “I hope the House will stand up for the people. I know the senators are going to stand up for the insurance companies. I can tell where their loyalties lie.”

Garner, 56, grew up in Little Rock and earned his medical degree at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.     

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