Biggest medical student group’s leader cheerleads for Obamacare while her members aren’t so sure

David Martosko Executive Editor
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In an interview with The Daily Caller, the president of the American Medical Student Association (ASMA) praised President Barack Obama’s health-care overhaul, denying that it is a “political” issue and insisting that medical students are better equipped to determine the best course for U.S. health care than seasoned but less idealistic physicians.

“Physicians-in-training have an unsoiled perspective on the health care system,” Liz Wiley, a fourth-year medical student at George Washington University, said. “[W]hile we may not have a wealth of experience, we have a commitment to patients that is unencumbered by competing financial interests or relationships with industry.”

Responding to questions about the need to retain private industry in the health insurance marketplace, Wiley was dismissive. “I don’t know how one can deny that the market has failed us,” she told TheDC. “In the context of such an imperfect market, government intervention is warranted.”

Wiley earned a law degree and a master’s degree in public heath before entering medical school,

Her ASMA lists four “aspirations” for its members. “Professional Integrity” is last on the list. “Quality, Affordable Health Care for All” is first.

It’s unclear how much of the group’s membership agrees with that position. Two current medical students and one recent graduate spoke with TheDC on condition of anonymity, citing the fear of reprisals either from fellow medical students or from faculty members whose approval they would need to further their careers.

One, a Harvard Medical School student, dismissed the idea of a medical student community unified on hot-button political questions.

“That’s crazy,” the student said. “For every Obama fan at Harvard, there’s another future doctor who’d rather not be working for the government in five years. I mean, is that where we’re all headed?”

“It’s so silly. These are probably the same kids who ran for student government in high school and thought it meant something. But it’s not like they speak for everyone. You just join the student medical association because it looks bad on your resume if you don’t.”

The ASMA last surveyed its members in late 2010, using a team of researchers that included Wiley herself. Only 18 percent of the members responded.

Of those who did, 95 percent agreed that the U.S. health care system “needs to be reformed.” Only 54 percent, however, said they understood the major provisions of the president’s health care law.

More than 59 percent of the respondents identified themselves politically as “liberal,” compared with less than 14 percent who said they were “conservative.”

Even with that imbalance, just 31 percent said they thought Obamacare would “improve health care quality.” The rest disagreed or weren’t sure.

Two-thirds agreed that Obamacare would “expand access to health care,” but less than 19 percent believed it would “contain health care costs.”

A few hours after the Supreme Court ruled, Wiley sent an email to her members. “What an historic day this is,” she wrote.

“For years to come we will remember this day as the first step toward achieving quality, affordable health care for all. … The Supreme Court held that the Affordable Care Act is constitutional, and this ruling will bring health care access to millions of Americans.”

Wiley also distributed a form letter that she asked medical students to send to their local newspapers. Its text complained that states choosing to opt out of Medicaid expansion, as the Supreme Court ruled they may, would “sabotage” expansion elsewhere. It also declared that “the best solution to our health care crisis is a publicly financed, federally administered” system.

A Daily Caller analysis of the Nexis database and other online resources indicates that only two AMSA members wrote letters that were published in U.S. newspapers. One was a University of Washington medical student who is AMSA’s staff “education & advocacy fellow.” The other was a Johns Hopkins University medical student who this year was a co-signer of a statement endorsing the Obama administration’s controversial, later withdrawn, mandate that would have required religious organizations to provide contraception and “plan B” abortion medications as part of employee health care plans.

The organization that circulated the statement, Doctors for America, was previously called Doctors for Obama during the president’s 2008 political campaign.

The second medical-school source who spoke to TheDC, a 2012 graduate of the Indiana University School of Medicine, said cross-currents between doctors-to-be and political campaigns were inevitable but unwelcome in some corners of the profession.

“Most of us just want to graduate, figure out an internship and a residency, then pay down our student loans while we treat as many patients as we can get in front of,” the newly minted M.D. said. “I like Obama on gay marriage, but I’m not a fan of his health care plan. When the ACA [Affordable Care Act] comes up, I just keep my head down and try not to rock the boat.”

Officially, AMSA is not shy about its preference for Obama’s position. Unlike the American Medical Association, which holds that a government-run overhaul “threatens to restrict patient choice by driving out private insurers,” the student group’s website openly advocates for a “publicly and progressively financed, privately delivered federal single payer system.”

Those two words — “single payer” — became lightning rods during the political debate leading up to the 2010 passage of Obama’s signature legislative achievement. Only the politicians on the far left, most famously Illinois Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky, dared utter them out loud.

“There’s a good reason for that,” said TheDC’s third medical school source, a student about to enter the final year of study at Dartmouth College’s Audrey and Theodor Geisel School of Medicine.

“‘Single payer’ is crazy talk. The only people who throw that around these days are occupiers and others like them. Not that we’re not already halfway there.”

Asked for a reaction to the AMSA’s online advocacy for a “federal single payer system,” the future physician replied, “Yikes. I had no idea.”

TheDC asked Wiley if her organization had made any attempts to determine if its members’ opinions had changed during the 20 months since the late-2010 survey was completed.

“I have no reason to believe that there has been any significant change,” she said.

“Access to high quality, guaranteed health care for all is not a political question.”

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David Martosko