Clinton Health Plan Starts at the Union League
Robert Reinecke MD and I were members of the American Medical Association House of Delegates for twenty or so years, members of the College of Cardinals, as it were. We were also members of the Colonel's Table at the Philadelphia Union League, a sort of club within the club. With his offices at Wills Eye Hospital only two blocks from mine at the Pennsylvania Hospital, we often walked together to the club for lunch. Since the AMA House takes about three hundred votes on health policy matters every six months, there were lots and lots of topics to discuss during our five-block walks.
One day, he had an idea for an AMA proposal, stimulated by dissatisfaction with the common practice of Health Maintenance Organizations (HMO) of forcing the patients to see a nurse before they could see a doctor. In fact, if the nurse didn't feel you needed to see a doctor, you couldn't. Bob didn't like that juvenile system at all, and as an ophthalmologist he furthermore disliked the related practice of requiring the patient to see a general practitioner before getting permission to see an ophthalmologist. You can see his point that more money was spent preventing a visit to the eye doctor than it would cost to go see one. So, he had a plan. It grew out of the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, which says that every criminal is entitled to see a lawyer. We need another Constitutional Amendment, that says everybody is entitled to see a doctor. Well, no. That doesn't sound right to me, Bob; you'd better think that one through a little more.
He did think about it; he seemed to think about it every day , and every time he thought about it, it sounded better to him, but sounded worse to me. To me, it was just one of those impulses we all get, and if I just remained politely resistant, it would eventually go away. As it might have, except he got a couple of visitors.
Bob represents the Ophthalmologists at the AMÅ, because he is an eminent scientist, a perfect gentleman, and a former President of the Academy of Ophthalmology. You could tell from the way eye doctors deferred to him at the AMA that his opinions mattered a lot. Harris Wofford had been appointed to the Senate seat vacated when Jack Heintz was killed in an airplane accident, and was at that time running for election to the unexpired Senate term. Wofford had visited the office of the Academy of Ophthalmology in Washington, soliciting campaign contributions. The office told him they couldn't consider such an idea about a Pennsylvania election, without the endorsement of Dr. Reinecke. So, he and James Carville came to visit at Wills Eye Hospital.
The whole conversation can be easily imagined, with nobody quite saying what was frankly on his mind, but ending up with a modest contribution. As the meeting drew to a close, Bob interjected that he had a proposal for reform of health care; it had to do with the Sixth Amendment and every patient's right to see a doctor, just like every criminal entitled to a lawyer. Wofford was in the uncomfortable position where he simply had to be polite and non-committal, so he promised to have his staff look into the matter -- and started to edge toward the door. But bald little Carville almost soared through the ceiling. "That's it. That's our campaign slogan. If every crook gets a free lawyer, why can't every American get a free doctor!!" Well, that wasn't coming out exactly the way it started out, but now there was no stopping it.
Wofford's opponent ran an indolent, even arrogant, campaign, probably the main reason Wofford beat him in the election. But Wofford went into every nook and cranny of Pennsylvania trumpeting the message that if criminals are entitled to lawyers, all citizens are surely entitled to health care. That's one further step away from the original intent, and who knows what further bounces the ball would take. Wofford's victory was proclaimed an upset of mamouth proportions, and the news was transmitted to Presidential Candidate Clinton that Pennsylvania had uncovered a massive groundswell in favor of National Health Insurance. That's a lot of spin before it even reached the spinmeister. Anyway, Clinton picked up the slogan, and made plans to incorporate it into his presidency as his legacy program for the American people.