Show Low cardiologist Steve Mehta wants to apply a little CPR to politics — starting with the increasingly rancorous debate about health care reform.
So he’s mounted a bid to win the Republican nomination in Congressional District One to face off against Democratic incumbent Ann Kirkpatrick, a former state lawmaker and Flagstaff prosecutor nearing the end of her first term in a district that normally votes Republican.
Mehta, a cardiologist for the past 11 years and Arizona resident since 1990, said he’ll focus on health care reform initially — trying to apply common sense and expertise to a contentious process.
On the whole, he maintains that the system isn’t all that broken and doesn’t need a start-from-the-beginning overhaul.
So he’s critical of the reform package already backed by House Democrats, including Kirkpatrick.
“The system isn’t as broken as they’re painting it,” said Mehta. Instead of making fundamental changes, reformers should “build on those things that are working — expand on those things — instead of spending a trillion dollars retooling the system and then another trillion dollars dealing with the unintended consequences.”
Mehta, in Payson to meet with supporters in what is shaping up to be a crowded Republican field, said he hopes voters will appreciate a clear-headed, pragmatist with experience in medicine and small business.
He said the real problems and answers always prove more complicated than the sound bites.
For instance, while he agreed with the Republican emphasis on medical malpractice reform, the caps on punitive damages and other changes suggested won’t get at the real problem.
As an example, he cited the debate about the value of angioplasty, which uses a small tube threaded through the veins to open up blockages in coronary arteries.
Cardiologists do perhaps a million angioplasties annually at a cost of some $8 billion.
However, a major study cast doubt on the use of angioplasty for most patients. The Courage studied 2,300 patients for seven years and concluded patients who got angioplasty did no better that patients treated with medication in terms of deaths, heart attacks and strokes.
Mehta noted that despite the study, angioplasty rates have continued to climb — an an average cost of about $12,000 per procedure.
Mehta said it’s not because doctors want to make more money — it’s because they want to avoid lawsuits. “From a defensive medicine standpoint, we’re led into where we error on the side of doing something.”
He admitted that he’d never been sued in such a case, but said the possibility of a lawsuit causes most doctors to do more tests and procedures than they would otherwise. “We’re certainly very paranoid about it,” said Mehta.
But simply capping punitive damages won’t do much good. Instead, said Mehta, the system should screen out lawsuits if a doctor has followed the advice of accepted expert panels.
“We need to increase the filters at the front end — if you follow the guidelines of the Courage trial, for instance, then that guards you from a lawsuit. And it’s true, most lawsuits do get tossed out — but that’s happening at the back end, not the front end.”
He said it’s impossible to estimate how much the system spends simply to avoid lawsuits.
Studies published in the New England Journal of Medicine and conducted by the National Institutes of Medicine have suggested that preventable medical errors kill anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 people in hospitals each year. A 2006 Institute of Medicine study concluded that medication errors harm 1.5 million patients annually, including 400,000 in hospitals, 800,000 in nursing homes, and 530,000 in Medicare outpatient clinics. Extra medical costs from preventable drug injuries could exceed $1 billion each year.
Advocates for malpractice reform say the practice of defensive medicine costs the $100-$200 billion annually. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that malpractice reforms would reduce medical costs by only about 1 percent.
Mehta said the complexity of the problem demonstrates why it’s essential to elect people who will make decisions based on facts — not on politics. “I’ve got some real-world experience,” said Mehta, who has headed the Arizona chapter of the American College of Cardiology for the past five years.
He said he’s traveled repeatedly to Washington representing cardiologists trying to affect the debate. “We and the other organizations are listened to politely, but then decisions are made as they are made.”
He said he would take a rational approach to the job.
“Granted, I can’t talk in the same depth about forest management, but the same exercise needs to happen when we’re talking about forest management — bring experts in and have this kind of dialogue. That is where a medical background is very helpful. I won’t make a decision without all the data.”