A health care reading list

Posted Nov. 02, 2009, at 7:49 p.m.

When I try to understand some of the health care reform issues being debated in Washington I feel like a moose probably would when trying to understand quantum physics. What the heck is a “regional purchasing cooperative” or “community rating?” When talking heads on TV make it sound as though “the public option” will lead to the ruin of American health care and failure of the sun to rise in the morning, are they right?

To make some sense of this mess I do what I do when I can’t figure out what’s going on with a patient: I get smart help. For the patient, I look to heart specialists, brain specialists, surgeons, other kinds of “-ologists,” and (sometimes the supermarket tabloids). For the health care reform debate, I get help from a few media sources, a health policy journal, a couple of foundations and one great book.

So can you, and with this kind of help you don’t have to be a health policy wonk with a big forehead to understand the health care reform debate. Load up on some caffeine (reading some of this stuff could put a moving truck to sleep), read up, and suddenly this debate will make more sense.

Start with the glossary of health care insurance and reform terms at www.prescriptions.blogs.nytimes.com/health-care-debate-a-brief-glossary. This is like the Rosetta Stone of health reform debate terminology. Print a copy and keep it handy so when politicians and commentators start throwing these terms around you have a clue what they are talking about. Without knowing these terms, you don’t know jack.

The next thing I would read is “The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care” by Washington Post reporter T.R. Reid. For about $20, this book will bring your comprehension of health policy issues from the Stone Age to the iPhone Age. You will not find a better book about how our health system does and does not work, and how other Western industrialized nations insure 100 percent of their people. It’s actually interesting, understandable, reads like a well-written story, debunks myths and misconceptions and is sized to fit on the back of your toilet.

If you read those two things you will have completed the course “Understanding Health Care Reform 101.” Now it is time for the advanced classes, the ones where you learn how to separate rhetoric from reason and keep up with the debates. Start with the well-written briefs on different health reform debate issues at the Web site of Health Affairs, the world’s best health policy journal; www.healthaffairs.org/healthpolicybriefs. They cover a broad range of topics from basic to arcane, give the pros and cons of hotly debated issues such as the “public option” and whether everyone should be forced to have health insurance, review ideas for reducing Medicare costs and much more. I suggest starting with the brief “Health Insurance Reforms: Should there be a new federal law and regulations to broaden coverage and make the market work better for individuals and small businesses?”

Finally, there are four resources I think are particularly useful in keeping up with the health policy debates. Between them they will put a dashboard of understandable information and insightful commentary at your fingertips:

The New York Times blog Prescriptions: Making Sense of the Health Care debate at www.prescriptions.blogs.nytimes.com. Not only does it cover the issues on a daily basis, but it has all kinds of links to other sites and information;

The Wall Street Journal has a good business and more conservative perspective.

The Commonwealth Fund’s health topics information at www.commonwealthfund.org, click on Topics;

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Web site at www.rwjf.org.

Reading information from the resources I have listed, instead of just listening to the health care reform rhetoric, will be akin to turning on your windshield wipers and headlights while driving in a snowstorm at night: “Aha — now I can finally see what’s going on!” Being informed will make these changes in health care less scary, and make it less likely you can be manipulated by powerful special interest groups taking advantage of our ignorance. Our political leaders need help from that kind of informed public.

Erik Steele, D.O., a physician in Bangor, is chief medical officer of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems and is on the staff of several hospital emergency rooms in the region. He is also the interim CEO at Blue Hill Memorial Hospital.

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