COLUMBIA — A family physician from Fayette was one of 150 doctors who heard a speech and a "pep talk" from President Barack Obama on health care reform Monday morning.
The doctors in white lab coats, which White House staff encouraged them to bring, shimmered in the bright sun in Rose Garden at the south side of the White House. It was a short and formal encounter with the president, but Hope Tinker, 54, said she was inspired.
"He is such a presence," she said about President Obama. "I felt very privileged and a great sense of responsibility to be included."
The president's brief speech, followed by a meet and greet with some of the doctors, comes during a week when the Senate Finance Committee might vote on its version of the health reform legislation.
"It is undeniable that the health care available to Americans is not is as it should be," Tinker said. "We know it as physicians."
Being a physician in Howard County, and other rural areas, is often tougher than in urban areas, she said.
Tinker has not practiced at a hospital since 1995, when the local county hospital that served a population of 10,000 closed down. She has to deal with people who lack insurance and have the health problems to show for it, she said.
"It is a professional hassle to practice medicine that way," said Tinker, who has a private practice, Family Health Inc.
The White House guest list also included some national organizations, such as American Medical Association and American College of Cardiology. Tinker, who filled in for a colleague who couldn't make it to the event, was one of the four physicians from Doctors for America. The nonprofit organization was founded by some doctors who had worked with Doctors for Obama.
At least one person crashed the party. A doctors' group, called Mad as Hell, had been protesting that day in front of the White House against the Finance Committee's bill. A member sneaked into the White House event, but he was not disruptive and chatted with the other doctors after the event, Tinker said.
Robert Frazier, who is a retired private physician in Columbia, said President Obama's meeting with doctors was more of a "photo op" than a substantive discussion of what doctors in the country think about the reform. He also said he did not think the 150 doctors represented physicians in the country.
"When this president cherry-picks his audience, you can be almost assured that he is picking his bias to be heard," Frazier said.
Physicians in the U.S. express a wide variety of opinions on health care reform, Tinker said. Some support greater reforms than those proposed in the bill, she said. Others don't want any changes at all.
"Some doctors who make a lot of money may fear that their income will go down with health care reform and the excessively high incomes of some sub-specialists is an issue that needs to be addressed," Tinker said.
Pay scale is also an issue among doctors in rural areas, especially primary care doctors — one of the issues the president touched upon in his address.
"There is a health and manpower shortage in Howard County," Tinker said. One of the ways to address that is to encourage more medical students to go into primary care, she said. But students are so deeply in debt by the time they graduate from medical school that they "are motivated to pursue more lucrative specialties."
As for her trip to the White House, she said she didn't get to shake hands with the president because she didn't want to knock over the person in front of her. But Tinker got to keep the white lab coat and took some photographs as souvenirs. She also got to tour the White House for the first time in her life.
"No, I didn't have lunch with (Obama)," she said. "He is a very busy guy."
Tinker said she was energized by meeting thepresident, and "by his acknowledgement that the expertise that we physicians have in health care is fundamental to creating the reforms that we need now."