WellPoint critic, 88, leads docs' crusade for Medicare for all

By Dan Carpenter
The Indianapolis Star, May 18, 2012

He was personal physician to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and future President Barack Obama when they were in Chicago.

He fought to end racial segregation in that city's hospitals in the 1950s and 1960s.

He ministered to civil rights marchers in the dangerous Deep South as head of an interracial doctors' group, the Medical Committee for Human Rights, whose efforts paved the way to Medicare.

Quentin Young, M.D., has devoted his retirement, after 61 years of practice, to the fight for national health insurance -- Medicare for all. On Wednesday, he stood in brilliant sunshine on Monument Circle facing the fortress of his greatest adversary.

"We're for single payer. It just makes sense, economically, medically. And we're optimistic," the 88-year-old activist said as he waved toward the WellPoint headquarters. "But we're really small compared to our opponent."

That depends. The protest staged at WellPoint's annual shareholders' meeting by Hoosiers for a Commonsense Health Plan and the Chicago-based Physicians for a National Health Program was aimed at huge money, reaped in profits and spent on lobbying and campaigns against health care reform by the nation's second-largest private insurer.

Yet the single-payer side can point to polls showing wide support by Americans in general and physicians in particular. Young and his fellow leaders, Drs. Robert Stone of Bloomington and Garrett Adams of Louisville, wore their examining coats to illustrate the point that doctors feel walled off from patients by insurance companies and are having Peter Finch "Network" moments.

Young, who is national coordinator of Physicians for a National Health Program, can remember when the profession was a lot more conservative than that. From his long perspective, popular sentiment will overcome concentrated power just as it did with race and gender equality.

Whether or not the Affordable Care Act passes its Supreme Court test, he and his compatriots said, America's for-profit system, costliest in the world and less effective than dozens of others, is unsustainable. It leaves 50 million Americans uninsured, and the advocates say 50,000 of those die every year for lack of access.

"The corporate model seeks to maximize return on investment," Young said. "This made America great, in many industries. You can't apply it to health care. You make money on health care by getting rid of sick people."

They won't get rid of Quentin Young any time soon if his personal prognosis holds up. His parents each lived to be 98, and his quick smile and full head of gray hair bespeak a man who could pester WellPoint and Congress another decade and then some.

"I quit practice four years ago after 61 years and asked myself what was I going to do with the rest of my life," he said. "I decided to work for national health care. I don't know how useful I am, but I feel good about it."

Carpenter is Star op-ed columnist.

Correction: Dr. Young’s partner in his Hyde Park practice, Dr. David Scheiner, was Obama’s personal physician.