'Mad as Hell' caravan tours Montana, touts health care for all

By MIKE DENNISON The Missoulian Friday, September 11, 2009

HELENA - Retired internist Robert Seward, a self-described "Mad as Hell" doctor who wants a publicly funded health system that covers all Americans, told a Helena crowd Thursday that he had a telling conversation with a Canadian citizen a day earlier.

As Seward checked into his motel in Spokane, he told the Canadian about the "Mad as Hell" cross-country caravan, meant to publicize how a Medicare-for-all system is the best way to reform health care in America - a system like Canada's, where all citizens are covered equally with taxpayer-financed health insurance.

The Canadian man was perplexed as to why Americans wouldn't embrace such a system, Seward said, and why America allows citizens to go bankrupt because of personal health care costs.

"He asked, 'Why don't you Americans take care of your own people?' " Seward said. "We don't. It's embarrassing. That's why I'm mad as hell."

Seward and some of his physician colleagues from Oregon and Washington are in Helena until Saturday, as part of their three-week tour to promote a Medicare-for-all system of health coverage as the best reform for the nation. The nation's health-care system is "far more broken than you could possibly imagine," said emergency room physician Paul Hochfield of Corvallis, Ore., and the only way to fix it is get rid of private, for-profit health insurance and replace it with a public system.

"It's being hijacked by the industry for profits instead of for the public good," he said.

The doctors, who said they used their own money to start the tour, say health reforms being advanced by President Barack Obama, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and others simply serve to entrench profitable private interests that are making health care unaffordable for the average person.

The tour is scheduled to end Sept. 30 in Washington, D.C., where the doctors will be part of a rally for a single-payer, Medicare-for-all system.

They're stopping for three days in Helena, including a rally held Thursday on the Capitol steps, a town meeting on Saturday at Carroll College, and, on Friday, a panel/debate at the Montana Medical Association convention.

At the MMA convention, the Mad as Hell doctors will square off against physicians with a conservative group, the Coalition to Protect Patients' Rights, which opposes more government involvement in health care and is dead-set against a single-payer system.

Mike Huntington, a retired radiation oncologist from Corvallis, Ore., said the Mad as Hell group believes the country would be better off with Congress passing no reform this year, as opposed to the reforms being considered now, so the public could become more familiar with the benefits of Medicare-for-all.

Huntington also commented on Obama's Wednesday speech to Congress, in which the president talked about the myriad of problems with the current health care system and then said he won't support Medicare-for-all because we need to build on the current system. "That's political doublespeak for, 'The health-and-insurance industry has told me I might not be re-elected unless I include them and I write laws that satisfy them,' " Huntington said.

Congress is not seriously considering a Medicare-for-all system, although there is supposed to be a vote this month on a House amendment that would enact such a system. Baucus, a key figure in health-reform legislation, has declared Medicare-for-all "off the table" from the beginning.

Some liberals in Congress are pushing for a so-called "public option" as part of reforms, which is a government-run health insurance plan that's supposed to compete with private insurance.

Huntington said the public option is a joke, because the only people covered by it would be the people that the private insurers don't want: The poor, the unemployed and people with health problems. It might struggle along for a few years and eventually die, overburdened by high costs, and then conservatives would use it as an example of how government can't run anything, he said.