The Potholed Road to Reform

October 1, 2003
Ken Karpay

Why physicians need to get more involved in politics

Harry Truman would advise neophytes to get involved in politics "as a committeeman knocking on doors." The more people you speak with, the greater your chance of getting elected and of understanding complex issues.

Charles Wheeler, MD, heard Truman offer this advice and followed it. In 1965, Wheeler, a one-time Air Force flight surgeon, hospital lab director, and forensic pathologist, was elected county coroner. He served in subsequent posts, then two terms as Kansas City mayor. And then political retirement.

Until a quarter-century later, that is. In 2002, Wheeler, 76, a Democrat, successfully sought a Missouri State Senate seat. He became the only physician serving in that chamber.  

No sooner had Wheeler been sworn into office than he was faced with a complex issue: medical malpractice reform, Senate Bill (SB) 280.

Physicians and their advocates, including the Missouri State Medical Association, were encouraged by their prospects this year. Republicans, who had gained control of both chambers of the legislature for the first time in almost 50 years, were committed to the measure. In addition, with Wheeler, six physicians were now members of the state's General Assembly.

But politics is not a sterile business. The process of changing laws can be slow and cumbersome. That is certainly the case with the malpractice reform effort in Missouri, where unanimity was lacking. To make the bill more palatable, or perhaps to insure its demise, dozens of amendments were added to it. In the end Wheeler, as well as all but one Democrat, voted against SB 280, blaming the amendments.

"They tacked all kinds of things onto [SB 280] ... including a provision regulating canoes," explains Wheeler, who is also a lawyer and a registered insurance broker. Nevertheless, the bill passed -- only to be vetoed by Gov. Bob Holden, a Democrat.

Late in August, proponents were hopeful a compromise would materialize. Wheeler insists that he will vote for an uncluttered malpractice reform measure, if he gets the chance.

Similar battles are raging across the U.S. Physician participation in the process is critical to educating the public and legislatures about the need for change. Yet the Missouri experience is a reminder that any reform will come slowly, with many twists in the road.

Wheeler encourages physicians to get involved in politics.

"Physicians are too naive about how decisions are made that affect them. I understand why: they're so busy." But he says that greater physician involvement would improve physician practices and the lives of their patients.

Are you interested in joining other physicians to change the healthcare system? Have you considered running for office? These and other topics are covered in our free electronic newsletter "Politics and Your Practice." E-mail me at kkarpay@physicianspractice.com, with the word "Subscribe" in the subject line. Also, please tell me your background and your interests. Your e-mail address will not be shared for marketing.

Politics & Your Practice is written by Ken Karpay, JD, CMC, associate publisher of Physicians
Practice and a management consultant. He can be reached at kkarpay@physicianspractice.com.

This article originally appeared in the October 2003 issue of Physicians Practice.