By MIKE MAGEE
The Politico headline in 2019 declared dramatically, “The Most Powerful Activist in America is Dying.” This week, 4 1/2 years later, their prophecy came true, as activist Ady Barkan succumbed at age 39 to ALS leaving behind his vibrant wife, English professor, Rachael King, and two small children, Carl,7, and Willow,3.
His journey, as one of the nation’s leading activists for a single-payer health care system began, not coincidentally, began with his diagnosis of A.L.S. in 2016, 4 months after the birth of his first child. His speech at the Democratic National Convention fully exposed his condition to a national audience.
His mechanized words that day were direct, “Hello, America. My name is Ady Barkan, and I am speaking to you through this computer voice because I have been paralyzed by a mysterious illness called A.L.S. Like so many of you, I have experienced the ways our health care system is fundamentally broken: enormous costs, denied claims, dehumanizing treatment when we are most in need.”
Three years later, with remarkable self-awareness, he told New York Times reporter, Tim Arango, “That’s the paradox of my situation. As my voice has gotten weaker, more people have heard my message. As I lost the ability to walk, more people have followed in my footsteps.”
His was a shared sacrifice, laced with stubborn and very public persistence, under the banner, “Be A Hero.” His passage on November 1, 2023, was bracketed that day by a piece by veteran Healthy Policy guru, and columnist for KFF Health News, Julie Rovner, that certainly would have made Ady smile. In the Washington Post newsletter, Health 202, it read, “The AMA flirts with a big change: Embracing single payer health care.”
The commentary that follows includes this, “That leftward shift in political outlook is showing up not just in the AMA, but in medicine as a whole. As the physician population has become younger, more female and less White, doctors (and other college graduates in medicine) have moved from being a reliable Republican constituency to a more reliable Democratic one.”
Ironically, the AMA’s lead journal JAMA last week reinforced the need for simplification with an article by luminary KFF health policy pros, Larry Levitt and Drew Altman, titled “Complexity in the US Health Care System Is the Enemy of Access and Affordability.” They write, “Health care simplification does not necessarily resonate in the same way as rallying cries for universal coverage or lower health care prices, but simplifying the system would address a problem that is frustrating for patients and is a barrier to accessible and affordable care.”
My friend and colleague at THCB, Kim Bellard took off on the article, writing, “Health insurance is the target in this case, and it is a fair target, but I’d argue that you could pick almost any part of the healthcare system with similar results. Our healthcare system is perfect example of a Rube Goldberg machine, which Merriam Webster defines as ‘accomplishing by complex means what seemingly could be done simply.’ Boy howdy.”
A bit further on, Kim comments, “If we had a magic wand, we could remake our healthcare system into something much simpler, much more effective, and much less expensive. Unfortunately, we not only don’t have such a magic wand, we don’t even agree on what that system should look like. We’ve gotten so used to the complex that we can no longer see the simple.”
As Kim suggests, status quo is hard to crack. But change has been in the air for some time. A KFF supported 2017 survey of 1,033 US physicians by Merritt Hawkins revealed a plurality of physicians favored moving on to a single payer system. Why? The survey suggested four factors:
1. Physicians are seeking “clarity and stability”. They believe “single payer” will reduce “distractions.”
2. There is a generational shift underway. “Younger doctors are more accepting.”
3. Physicians have become resigned that “we are drifting toward a single payer system” – so let’s get on with it.
4. There is a philosophical change occurring that increasingly embraces the societal value of universal coverage.
Around the same time American Public Health Association published a proposal drafted by the Physicians for a National Health Program which currently boosts more than 25,000 physician and medical student members. That proposal echoed some of the five points – universality, single administration, local delivery, health planning, and inclusive transparency.
Kim, Julie, Larry, and Drew are right in pointing a finger at complexity. But what Ady understood, more perhaps than any others have waged the good activist fight as a progressive soldier, was that the challenge was greater than that. The challenge was cultural.
That realization was what drove the military’s decision under the Marshall Plan. In the re-build of Germany and Japan, we elected to start with a health plan – in part because we recognized that all other social determinants – housing, nutrition, education, clean air and water, safety and security – would be enhanced in the process leading to a tradition that could support stable democracies.This is essentially the same challenge we as a country (having wandered so far off course as to elect Trump) are facing today.
Changing culture, as health professionals know, is a tall order. It is about compassion, understanding and partnerships. It is about healing, providing health, and keeping individuals, families and communities whole. And – most importantly – it is about managing population-wide fear, worry and anxiety.
What we are asking of the people, and the people caring for the people, is to change their historic culture (one built on self-interest, hyper-competitiveness, and distrust of good government). This is a tall order – something that parents, pastors, politicians and physicians equally recognize. Things evolve, and difficult things take time.
Ady Barkan has run out of time. He has left it to us to complete the task of achieving health care for all through a single payor system.
Mike Magee MD is a Medical Historian and regular contributor to THCB. He is the author of CODE BLUE: Inside America’s Medical Industrial Complex.