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President Obama's shoutout shocks NC doctor

Karen Garloch
Karen Garloch writes on Health for The Charlotte Observer. Her column appears each Tuesday.

In late October, Dr. Sam Weir awoke one day at his usual early hour, made a cup of tea and sat down at the computer in his Hillsborough home.

Much of the news that day focused on the disastrous roll-out of Healthcare.gov, the online portal for the federal government’s health insurance marketplace established by the Affordable Care Act.

“I went to the website to check it out for myself,” said Weir, a family physician and faculty member at UNC Chapel Hill School of Medicine. “As you might imagine at 4:30 in the morning, it worked beautifully.”

He was able to compare a variety of insurance packages and thought, “Wow. This is a really good thing.”

Historically he knew that buying insurance as an individual, outside an employer group, could be confusing and expensive. Patients had told stories of not being able to buy insurance at all, or paying exorbitant rates, because they had pre-existing medical conditions.

With all the bad news about the website, “I thought that the president and his team must be awfully discouraged,” Weir said. So he signed onto www.whitehouse.gov and wrote President Barack Obama a note of thanks.

A month passed. Then last week, Weir got a call from a man who identified himself as a “White House speech writer.” Weir was so startled, he doesn’t remember the caller’s name, only that he asked if it would be all right for the president to quote Weir in a speech the next day.

Of course, Weir said. It was more than OK.

So on Tuesday last week, between seeing patients, Weir watched the president’s speech. Sure enough, Obama quoted from Weir’s email: “The coming years will be challenging for all of us in family medicine,” the doctor wrote. “… But my colleagues and I will draw strength knowing that beginning with the new year, the preventive care many of our current patients have been putting off will be covered, and the patients we have not yet seen will finally be able to get the care they have long needed.”

Weir, 57, grew up in Charlotte and graduated from South Mecklenburg High School, Davidson College and Duke University medical school. After residency at UNC, he spent two years at a small clinic in the rural town of Stovall, in eastern North Carolina.

It was the 1980s, and many of his male patients were tobacco farmers whose wives had worked in textile mills. When the mills closed, the women lost their jobs, families lost health insurance, and people put off needed medical care.

“I would be writing a prescription, and the patient would say, ‘Now, doc, how much is that gonna cost me?’ Or if I said, ‘I think your chest pain is severe, and I’d like to admit you to the hospital,’ they would say ‘No’ because they couldn’t afford it. They didn’t want to get a hand out. They were just declining care because of their economic situation.”

Weir has heard the recent complaints from people whose insurance plans have canceled and whose premiums and deductibles are going up because of the new health law. But he said, “My sense is that there are going to be a lot more winners than losers.”

In his letter to Obama, he wrote: “I am deeply grateful that within a few more months, patients like those I saw in Stovall ... will finally have an opportunity to get coverage.”

Garloch: 704-358-5078
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