COLUMBIA — Wendy Brumbaugh said she knows how difficult and frustrating getting access to a doctor can be.
Her job in Shelbyville involves counseling lower-income rural Missourians with financial problems, so she sees their lives up close. A major challenge they face is distance and access to health care.
"We would have to drive at least 2 ½ hours to see a cardiac specialist from where I live," Brumbaugh said.
Her husband is diabetic, she said, so that often means driving to Columbia to see a specialist.
Brumbaugh is one of six Missourians — two from central Missouri — who will participate in what is being billed as "a massive day of action" in Washington on Thursday, as President Barack Obama and various members of Congress push for health care reform.
Hope Tinker, a family physician from Fayette who is also certified in geriatric medicine, is the second member from central Missouri who is going to the event.
The "day of action," organized by Heath Care for America NOW!, is to focus on lobbying Congress for affordable health coverage for everyone through a public health option. Health Care for America is paying the way of all the Missouri participants, with some help from Grass Roots Organizing.
Missouri representatives listed as supporters on Health Care for America's Web site are Sen. Claire McCaskill, Rep. Russ Carnahan and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, all Democrats.
Both Brumbaugh and Tinker are members of Grass Roots Organizing, a Mexico, Mo.-based organization that works on issues affecting lower income and rural Missourians.
Robin Acree, director of Grass Roots Organizing, said Tinker and Brumbaugh will bring what she called a "rural lens" to the lobbying effort. Brumbaugh said she will try to give voice to the interests of rural people, and Tinker will be grouped with the physicians.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation's study of health care coverage, 750,218 Missouri residents are without health insurance. Health insurance premiums have grown 76 percent from 2000 to 2007, according to the Families USA's September 2008 report, "Premiums versus Paychecks."
According to the New America Foundation, the cost of Missouri employer-sponsored health insurance is projected to rise at an annual rate of 8.7 percent, while income in Missouri is to grow just 0.2 percent.
Still, a new Washington Post-ABC poll found that most Americans are "very concerned" that a health care overhaul would lead to higher costs, lower quality, fewer choices, a bigger deficit, diminished insurance coverage and more government bureaucracy. About 6 in 10 are at least somewhat worried about all of these factors, the poll found, but they still want lawmakers to tackle the issue.
Brumbaugh is aware of some of the fears people have about health care reform.
"Right now, I think there's so many misconceptions out there that the fear factor is playing a huge role, trying to scare people into being against it for whatever reason," she said.
She said a woman recently said to her: "I'm not in favor of a public option. I don't want to pay for somebody else's insurance."
Brumbaugh told her: "You are right now, if you just think about it. We're all paying."
She said she hopes to dispel any notion that people will lose their right to choose private over public health insurance.
"That is not personally for me what I am lobbying for,” Brumbaugh said. “I want there to be a private option. What I want is for it to be affordable, but what we have had in the past is not working — anyone can see that — and we just need change.”
She noted that rural areas are often served only by clinics where a nurse practitioner sees patients for "the small simple things," she said. "When it comes to specialists, we don't have those."
Tinker said she hopes to have a chance to share personal stories of her own patients, including their struggles in obtaining health care and paying for health insurance.
"I think it is unique to rural people that the number of providers is a lot less," Tinker said. "I think transportation is a real issue for rural people. To see a specialist or have to go out of town for your primary care, it's a hassle. People can spend half a day going to doctors."
Tinker said access to health services has diminished in rural Missouri because physicians there make less money. She also pointed to fewer hospitals in rural communities than in the past.
"Why in the heck would I want to work in Fayette when I can make three times as much working in Columbia? Why work in some area where there isn't a hospital when it is known that doctors who don't work in hospitals don't make as much money?" she said.
Richard Gleba, director of the MU School of Medicine's Office of Communication and Innovation, said the medical school is addressing the shortage of rural physicians.
"We enroll highly qualified students from rural areas in the medical school and provide them with training opportunities in a rural setting," Gleba said. "Medical students who are from and train in rural areas are more likely to become physicians who practice in rural areas."
The event in Washington, which begins Thursday, is to include press events, town hall meetings and conferences with lawmakers and is to culminate in a rally at 11:30 a.m. at Upper Senate Park.