Alibi V.17 No.36 • Sept 4-10, 2008 

News Profile

Doctor, Doctor

Health care practitioners start talking about an antidote for a poisoned health care system

Dr. Elizabeth Burpee delivers a speech about health care at a rally at the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday, Aug. 27.
Dr. Elizabeth Burpee delivers a speech about health care at a rally at the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday, Aug. 27.
Oscar Lopez

Dr. Elizabeth Burpee's daughter was trying to scream, but she couldn't because her tongue was swollen. In the pediatric ER two weeks ago at UNM Hospital, the girl was having a life-threatening allergic reaction to an antibiotic. Burpee is a doctor at the hospital, but that night, she was there as a mom. "I went out to get a nurse, and the nurse was too busy to come right away," Burpee says.

UNMH was on code purple status, she says, which means a message was sent to all health care providers in the hospital saying the ER was crowded, the hospital was full and patients needed to be discharged as fast as possible so ER patients could get into beds. "That's a product of our failed health care system," Burpee says. "People have to use the ER as their primary care facility. That's a huge problem and incredibly dangerous."

Days later, she would be traveling with 28 nurses and doctors from New Mexico to the Democratic National Convention, where Burpee would speak about the ailing health care system in the United States. The group was part of the state's chapter of Healthcare United, an organization of doctors and nurses seeking a voice in the national debate about health care. Watching her daughter catch her breath after finally receiving the treatment she needed, Burpee marveled at the situation. "I was thinking to myself, This is crazy. This is stuff that I talk about, and this is happening to me right now."

Health care workers from all over the country gathered at the DNC Aug. 27 for a rally at Sunken Gardens Park. Healthcare United is not advocating a specific plan beyond expanding access to affordable care, says Oscar Lopez, the New Mexico director. When people are bogged down fighting for one model, they don't get very far, he says. "There's going to be a monumental battle for health care and major change, and we want to make sure health care workers are not left out of the debate," he says. The national group will send a contingent to the Republican National Convention as well, though probably from chapters closer to Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Minn.

I was thinking to myself, This is crazy. This is stuff that I talk about, and this is happening to me right now.

Dr. Elizabeth Burpee

Sue Brown is a retired physician who spent her career working in New Mexico. She also traveled with the state's contingent to the convention in Denver. "I've been inclined to get a little cynical about the will to change anything in health care," she says. "I went along to get energized." Brown doesn't vote along party lines, she says. She describes herself as a conscientious voter who ferrets out politicians' positions on the issues, particularly health care.

Dr. Sue Brown (left) and Registered Nurse Merna Brostoff at Invesco Field in Denver on Thursday, Aug. 28
Dr. Sue Brown (left) and Registered Nurse Merna Brostoff at Invesco Field in Denver on Thursday, Aug. 28
Oscar Lopez

Reform proposals have come and gone under different banners, she says. "Through the years, there have been a lot of little catchphrases: universal health care, single-payer, all these different names." Brown favors a system where everyone has access to health care, even if they have pre-existing medical conditions.

"The private and public sectors can be put together to enlarge the pool of people insured—spread the risk, in other words," she says. It's also important that no matter what program is proposed, it covers both acute and preventive care, she adds.

Previous attempts at reforming the U.S. health care system have failed, she says, because an option with access for everyone would have to be part of an entirely new system. "We are also under pressure from huge lobbies, both insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies," she says.

In her career working around the state, at UNMH and at Indian Health Services, she says she's seen the shoddy system develop. "What I think about is the old days, when patients drove the way you practiced," she says. "Nowadays, you can be committed to the patient, but the parameters of the amount of time you have with the patient are really driven by the health care industry." Physicians are hurried through the system, she says.

Burpee spoke at the rally about how health care providers must be included in the conversation. "If you put a reform package together without the expertise of doctors and nurses, it would be disastrous," she says.

The parameters of the amount of time you have with the patient are really driven by the health care industry.

Dr. Sue Brown

That was one problem with the fixes proposed during the Clinton years, she adds. Not enough medical practitioners were involved in the creation of legislation. "There were so many people trying to come up with so many perfect plans, and ultimately, it was a failure, because there were so many disagreements about what was needed and how to create it." At this stage, she says, the health care providers are trying to avoid infighting about what exactly legislation should look like but rather unite around certain principles.

Merna Brostoff says it was vital that representatives from New Mexico attend the rally, because there are so many uninsured and underinsured adults in the state. Brostoff is a registered nurse and case manager at UNMH for medically fragile cases. She's been a nurse for 26 years. "I am constantly fighting the system, trying to advocate for families," she says. "The layers of bureaucracy are unimaginable."

When neighbors and friends found out Brostoff was going to the rally, she says everyone had a story to tell about their expensive insurance policies, their ineffective insurance policies, their health concerns. "I went there not just for me," Brostoff says, "but for all my friends and all my family and everyone I know who's really struggling."