As it turns out, some pretty traumatic events from Harry Reid’s childhood in Searchlight may have helped shape the historic health care policy that became known as the Affordable Care Act.
“I remember the TB wagon coming through town (conducting tests for tuberculosis). Mom tested positive…she was worried sick, but didn’t know what to do, so she did nothing. Obviously, it turned out to be a false positive, but it was very worrisome to the whole family.”
Young Harry, his parents, and three brothers lived in a home with no indoor toilet, hot water, or telephone. Physicians in his part of rural Nevada were scarce and medical care was a luxury that many people couldn’t afford. The only option was toughing it out and hoping the pain would subside and the injury would heal itself.
“My brother broke his leg. He writhed in pain for days on his bed, never went to the doctor. His leg is still bowed. My mom got hit in the face with a softball and it badly damaged her teeth. But she didn’t have access to a dentist, so she lived for many years without teeth. I remember when my dad had a really bad toothache, he would pull his own teeth with vise grips.”
The stories are legendary. They not only speak to the toughness of the people in our region back then, they’re part of the reason Harry Reid went on to become a politician who spent his career fighting for the working poor and making health care more accessible for everyone.
More MDs Needed
In fact, when I asked Sen. Reid about his hopes for the UNLV School of Medicine, the first thing he mentioned was the need for more doctors in the remote parts of Nevada. “Rural Nevada is desperate for health care,” he said. “Many of the hospitals are gone or on their way out. That would be a great place for some of our Nevada students to practice.”
Sen. Reid is right. And we also need more doctors in population centers like Southern Nevada. One of the primary missions of the UNLV School of Medicine is to increase the number of physicians in Southern Nevada — both our rural, and urban areas. The Nevada Legislature is beginning to address the need in rural Nevada, as legislators are considering a bill that would encourage new doctors to move to small towns and practice for at least five years. In exchange, the rural physician’s student loans would be forgiven. While in Washington D.C., Congress is looking at ways to increase the number of resident physicians throughout the country.
Even with all these efforts, the Association of American Medical Colleges recently announced an anticipated shortage of 120,000 physicians nationwide by the year 2030, as one-third of all currently active doctors will be older than 65 and begin retiring in the next decade.
As it turns out, several of the components of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that Sen. Reid worked so hard on will help ease the burden of a widening doctor shortage. “Obamacare provided and helped pave the way for more physician assistants and nurse practitioners,” he said.
I can tell you these health care professionals will certainly play a key role going forward and fill the gaps as our population ages and more of our MDs retire. In fact, we’ve recently recruited several nurse practitioners to join the ranks of UNLV Medicine.
Another important part of our health care safety net are Community Health Centers. They ensure that underserved, and uninsured Americans have access to quality health care.
“Community Health Centers were part of the Affordable Care Act,” Sen. Reid said. “Nevada benefited significantly. There had been no focus on Community Health Centers before. I needed Bernie Sander's vote. We brought in an expert on Community Health Centers and we made it happen.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the ACA established the Community Health Center Fund, providing $11 billion over a five-year period for the operation, expansion, and construction of health centers throughout the U.S.
Sen. Reid has a very long list of accomplishments in his career, but he is most proud of his work on the Affordable Care Act. “I spent eight years working as Obama’s quarterback, working through the Senate to get the Affordable Care Act passed. It’s too bad there are efforts to weaken it, but it’s still here.”
The senator believes those who want to change or completely dismantle the ACA will not succeed, but he is pained by some of the changes that have been made to the original design. “They’ve hacked away at it. I wish we could get it back in line. “
He has this advice for anyone who may be concerned about efforts to weaken or dismantle the ACA. “Understand the issue rests with Congress. Tell your Congress people we need to start with re-establishing Obamacare as it was originally designed. Let’s start with the Affordable Care Act because it’s been hacked to pieces."
I was curious what advice Sen. Reid would have for our medical students. What kind of doctors would he like to see them become? I was somewhat surprised by his answer.
“I hope our Nevada medical students will not only become highly educated doctors, but also nice people,” Sen. Reid said. “Don’t be afraid to admit your mistakes or admit that maybe this won’t work.”
In other words, Sen. Reid would like to see the next generation of Nevada doctors treat people the same way he wants to be treated — with honesty, integrity, and compassion.