Guest Opinions

Americans do die without health care – we’ve seen it – and the ER can’t solve it all

Bruce Belzer, left, and Patrice Burgess.
Bruce Belzer, left, and Patrice Burgess.

It was extremely disheartening to hear Idaho Congressman Raul Labrador state in a public forum, “Nobody dies because they don’t have access to health care.” He subsequently attempted to clarify that he was referring to the federal law that requires emergency rooms to treat anyone who walks through the doors. Regardless, his comments demonstrate an unfortunate lack of awareness of what is actually happening to uninsured patients in Idaho and across the country.

Daily, we and our physician colleagues see the devastating impacts on patients when they don’t have health insurance and therefore lack access to ongoing life-improving and life-saving care — even though they may have access to an emergency room. One example is a 48-year-old patient who died because she lacked health insurance and couldn’t afford the medication needed to treat her condition. The physician was in the process of trying to get the medicine for free when she passed away.

Another example is a patient in her late 50s who had bleeding after menopause, which requires a biopsy to investigate. Against medical advice, she waited almost a year to schedule the procedure until she could obtain insurance through her job. When the biopsy was finally done, it showed she had cancer. Despite treatment, the cancer had spread and she eventually died from it. This type of cancer is typically quite treatable if caught early. These are just a couple of stories among dozens, if not hundreds, that show how Labrador’s comments are not in alignment with the bleak reality of uninsured Idahoans.

Further, Labrador implies that emergency rooms are a life-saving “bailout” for people with chronic or life-threatening conditions. The truth is that these patients could be diagnosed and treated more cost-effectively earlier in the disease process and with better outcomes if they have insurance coverage that allows them to access preventive health care services.

Earlier this year, we as IMA representatives attempted to meet with Labrador in Washington to discuss health care reform. He was not able to participate in a scheduled meeting. If he had been there, our message would have been that patients and physicians should not have to worry about which political party is in power. Instead, we should have a sustainable, cost-effective approach that provides coverage to as many people as possible, ensuring access to preventive care. This is what saves lives, not a frantic trip to the emergency room as a last resort.

The Idaho Medical Association represents nearly 3,000 physicians practicing in Idaho. We would like to give an open invitation to meet with Labrador and his staff to offer our perspective on the negative impacts in Idaho if the AHCA passes the Senate in its current form. Perhaps listening to physicians who practice in the emergency room and in community medical clinics would be time well spent for Mr. Labrador and his advisers.

Patrice Burgess, M.D., serves as the Idaho Medical Association’s delegate to the American Medical Association. Co-author Bruce Belzer, M.D., is a WWAMI and family medicine residency of Idaho graduate. He is president of the Idaho Medical Association.