Dec. 1 was supposed to be Kenneth Paul Mauterer's big day in his tiny hometown of Olla, La.
The auditorium at his alma mater, LaSalle High School, was booked. A couple of congressmen and local officials were scheduled to appear. And probably, a large percentage of the town's 1,370 residents would have turned out to honor Mauterer, known about town since his schoolboy days as Kenny Paul.
A couple of weeks before, Mauterer had been named Country Doctor of the Year in a national contest sponsored by Staff Care, an Irving, Texas-based temporary staffing firm that cited him for a career of dedication as a rural medical practitioner. But at about 9 p.m. on Nov. 23, a tornado struck Olla, ripping the roof off the auditorium, damaging more than 50 homes, sending about 25 people to the hospital and killing an 89-year-old woman Mauterer had known all his life.
Mauterer says Audrey Hinton had been watching TV in the den of her home when her 93-year-old husband got up and went to the kitchen to take some medicine.
She called out to him, asking why the TV had gone out, and the tornado smashed into the couple's home. Mauterer says he pronounced her dead at the scene. Her husband was badly injured but survived.
Part of the rest of that night Mauterer spent riding around town on a neighbor's three-wheeled all-terrain vehicle, checking on the welfare of other townsfolk, including his two daughters and baby granddaughter. Then he headed home, changed into some dry clothes and drove to Olla's 41-bed Hardtner Medical Center to help treat the injured.
Mauterer got home at about 3 a.m. Later, he phoned to have the award ceremony postponed. It's been rescheduled for Jan. 21.
Like George Bailey in the Christmas classic, "It's a Wonderful Life," Mauterer says he has contemplated other paths.
"I sometimes wonder, what if I had specialized? Would I have had more impact on people or where would I be?" he says. "But I think as a general practitioner, I'm very happy about doing what I did. We're from an area that's real close-knit. If you come out into a rural area and you become part of the community, you still get that feeling. It's very satisfying."
"I just about dropped my false teeth," said one elderly woman.
What could elicit such a reaction? Nope, it wasn't a desperate housewife slipping out of her towel into the arms of a football player. Or the news that teeny-bopping pop princesses, egads, lip-synch. And no, it wasn't the sight of professional basketball players running into the stands to clobber fans.
It was going to her local pharmacist and seeing a $20 savings the first time she used her Medicare drug card.
Last week marked the one-year anniversary of the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003, and HHS and the CMS toasted the much-maligned legislation with a birthday cake, oratories of the historic nature of the law and, of course, testimonies from seniors about the benefits they've reaped from the drug card program in place until the full prescription drug benefit kicks in on Jan. 1, 2006.
Other seniors spoke of having to skip dosages because they couldn't afford their medication, a step they no longer have to take thanks to the savings achieved with the drug card. Some said they saved hundreds of dollars each month.
Much has been said about the low sign-up rate for the card, and a survey released last week by the Federation of American Hospitals found that only one-third of seniors said they would likely sign up for the prescription drug benefit. HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson pooh-poohed the results, however, calling them premature. When the full benefits take effect, he expects seniors will line up to sign up, he says.
Hard to say goodbye
Among the well-known Washington insiders on hand last week for Tommy Thompson's farewell as HHS secretary was his old friend and erstwhile deputy, Tom Scully, who last year resigned as CMS administrator after the passage of the Medicare Modernization Act. In fact, Scully was probably the second-most recognizable face in the crowded HHS auditorium after Thompson, who acknowledged his old pal not once but twice in a matter of about 15 minutes.
While noting that he will "miss this place," Thompson glanced over to Scully, now working for a high-powered Washington law firm, and joked, "I'll even miss Scully." Later, when a reporter asked about the list of his potential successors, Thompson went back to the well, saying, "I see Tom Scully here-maybe we would hire Scully." Of course, Scully got himself into a little hot water earlier this year over reports that he threatened to fire a CMS actuary if he revealed that the agency allegedly hid the true costs of the prescription drug bill.
After Thompson's lighthearted nomination of his former aide for the top job at HHS, Scully mumbled something about "Darth Vader" being a more likely successor. He later dismissed his return to government as very, very unlikely. "I was one of the biggest troublemakers (at HHS)," he said.