Most of the sessions at the American Medical Group Associations annual conference in Orlando, Fla., last week were led by seasoned healthcare executives offering deep inside baseball details about how they successfully pulled off a complicated deal or project.
But the program that seemed to have sparked the most discussions featured two high-profile former politicians who spent a lot of time rattling off healthcare factoids and generalities that the healthcare officials in the audience must have heard dozens of times.
Was it former House Speaker Newt Gingrichs delivery that made the audience forget how many times they had heard different versions of his complaint about how people can use their credit cards in ATMs on different continents, but their local hospital cant get records from their primary-care physician down the street? And did former senator and presidential candidate Bill Bradley offer a new way to illustrate that the number of deaths from medical errors each year in this country is equal to the number of people who would die if there was a deadly commercial airline crash every day?
The answer to both questions is no, but the people I talked to didnt seem to mind. They said they enjoyed the give and take and back-and-forth informal debate that was deftly moderated by Washington Post reporter Ceci Connolly. A member of the National Basketball Association Hall of Fame, the 6-foot-5- inch Bradley helped set the informal tone for the program right at the beginning when he adjusted Connollys chair so she wouldnt look so short sitting next to him.
The event reminded me of the only time Gingrich and Bill Clinton debated on the same stage. In a hastily organized program that took place June 11, 1995, Clinton and Gingrich engaged in a similarly cordial but lively back-and-forth discussion at a senior citizen home in Claremont, N.H. I remember thinking that it was a productive exchange of ideas but, afterward, both men were excoriated by partisans on both sides for fraternizing with the enemy.
From that moment on, scorched-earth politics became the order of the day, and maybe the audience enjoyed last weeks program so much because it was a refreshing change from what they are used to.
Gingrich helped endear himself to the audience by being bipartisan in his criticism. In the upcoming election, he said the Democrats were the party of bad ideas while the Republicans were a party with no ideas. Bradley showed his bipartisanship by praising President Bushs former Treasury Secretary Paul ONeill, who insisted on worker safety while he served as chairman and chief executive officer of Alcoa, one of the worlds largest aluminum producers, and then advocated the same safety focus for healthcare.
Gingrich described himself as a Theodore Roosevelt Republican, which he explained meant that he is an advocate for a regulated free market with the government setting and enforcing standards. Bradley, meanwhile, advocated a healthcare system of collective caring and personal responsibility. He explained that people need to take better care of themselves and that doctors should stop making excuses for not buying electronic medical records. He added that doctors can afford to buy the typical $33,000 office EMR system if that sum is split into 24 payments.
Gingrich surprised some by calling for more federal dollars for EMRs and said President Bush should mimic President Dwight D. Eisenhowers construction of the Interstate Highway System with the development of an EMR infrastructure. He also told a story of how one White House Office of Management and Budget bureaucratwithout direction from the president or Congressstopped any money from a $100 million grant package to New Orleans doctors from being used on health information technology.
Gingrich said that Bush needs to fire this budget office staffer to show that hes serious about what he says in his speeches about health IT. When Bradley responded that the incident shows why the country needs a new president, Gingrich added that he thinks they should send this bureaucrat hunting with Dick (Cheney).
(When asked about the accuracy of Gingrichs statement, budget office spokeswoman Christin Baker didnt say whether the decision to exclude IT expenses from the grant package was made by one person, but did note that the presidents proposed 2009 budget includes $100 million for IT initiatives. Hurricane Katrina was a unique and devastating event, Baker said in an e-mail. Given the extraordinary situation faced by the region, the administrations highest policy priority was helping ensure the delivery of basic healthcare. This is consistent with congressional intent in the Deficit Reduction Act.)
Both Gingrich and Bradley focused on facts rather than philosophy.
People say they dont want government healthcare, but the reality is, we do have government healthcare, Bradley said. He explained that between Medicare, Medicaid, the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program and the health programs of the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, more than 50% of the nations healthcare is provided by the government. He added that, with $1,500 of the cost of a car going toward auto workers health insurance costs, were paying for private insurance as well.
Is healthcare a right? Gingrich asked. Thats the wrong question. Healthcare is a fact.
He explained how, if patients show up in any emergency department, they will be taken care of regardless of their ability to pay.
By the time the two politicians finished talking about healthcare, there was little time left to discuss politics. An early supporter of Barack Obama, Bradley generated some applause by suggesting that Republican John McCain pick Gingrich as his running mate.
Gingrich skillfully deflected the remark, but many in the audience probably thought Gingrich also thought it was a good idea.
The session then abruptly ended as time had run out and both men and Connelly received a warm round of applause from the audience as attendees rushed to grab a quick cup of coffee in the exhibit hall before the next round of educational sessions.
In the back of the exhibit hall was a table with items being bid on in a silent auction for the AMGAs charitable foundation. If the sale of the sports-related items is any indication, the two politicians were a hit with the audience.
While baseballs autographed by Wade Boggs and Brooks Robinson sold for $60 and $125, and autographed pictures of Bob Feller and Roger Clemons received bids of $55 and $130; a basketball autographed by Bill Bradley went for $170.