- The Washington Times - Friday, March 13, 2009

More than 300 medical students rallied on Capitol Hill on Thursday afternoon calling on Congress for a greater emphasis on primary-care physicians, for more medical assistance to poor people around the globe, and for a single-payer U.S. health-care system.

“Our health care system is failing. So many people are uninsured or underinsured,” said Rebecca Bak, a third-year student at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.

“Everybody in! Nobody out!” chanted Ms. Bak and other students.

“The rally really excites the students. They are the next generation of medical physicians. You really need a strong primary care work force,” AMSA spokeswoman Kim Cunningham said before the rally’s march down Pennsylvania Avenue.

“We are definitely for a single-pay system, but that’s not the single purpose of the rally,” Ms. Cunningham said.

Dressed in white lab coats and armed with signs, the march started at the Navy Memorial-Archives subway stop and ending at the west side of the Capitol at Third Street Northwest. On the Capitol Hill lawn, the marchers joined with another group from a charter bus for speeches and then everyone dispersed to lobby lawmakers, mostly in the House and Senate offices spread around Capitol Hill.

The rally, led by the American Medical Student Association (AMSA), was aimed at boosting federal spending on the National Health Care Service Corps and the worldwide health-care work force. Two bills are being written to address those matters — sponsored by Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent, and Rep. James E. Clyburn, South Carolina Democrat.

Each year, students rely upon debt relief and scholarships for on-the-field experience. The National Health Care Service Corps gives scholarships for students to practice in a rural setting for two years after graduation.

Ryan Van Ramshorst, a third-year medical student at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, however, said a federal funding lapse over the past years has burdened the program’s potential.

“Over 1,000 people applied to the program last year but only 84 were able to get in. I think as more of this program grows, it will help students to get into primary care,” Mr. Van Ramshorst said.

After the rally, students lobbied on Capitol Hill for the Sanders and Clyburn bills, which increases federal funding to the scholarship program, provides money for disease treatments and health-care workers worldwide, and funds student-loan repayments, community health centers, and primary health care for Americans.

According to AMSA regional director Nalini Hasija, the group’s desires would cost more than $15 billion.

Whitney Sheen, a freshman medical student at Yale University, presented her case Thursday afternoon to her home-state senators — John McCain and Jon Kyl, both Arizona Republicans.

“Fundamentally, Congress has to keep an option of buying into a public plan. We can’t exist with the status quo any longer. Costs keep going up and quality keeps going down,” Ms. Sheen said, adding that there should be “no more cherry picking [of patients] by insurance companies.”

She and her colleagues said they are optimistic with the outcome and that the “political window is wide open, and this is the year for change.”

The students said they are also concerned about the low number of students entering schools to become primary-care physicians and the current tendency for students to enter specialized-care fields, where market-entry costs are lower.

The World Health Organization reports that the U.S. health-care workforce will start experiencing shortages of health-care workers within 10 years that may reach as high as 100,000 physicians and 1 million nurses. On a global scale, WHO reported a deficit of 4.3 million doctors, nurses, midwives, support workers in 2006, with Africa the continent suffering the worst shortages.

AMSA’s theme for this year’s convention is “Win Back Our Profession.” More than 1,100 medical students are attending a five-day workshop at the Hyatt Regency Crystal City in Arlington.

Not every medical student at the convention is satisfied with the lobbying, though. Zachary Bloomer, of Arizona State University, calls universal health care the “socialization” of medicine.

“Once a government is in control of health care they would be capable of dictating how much a doctor will be paid, then where a doctor can practice,” he said in an e-mail to The Washington Times.

The AMSA is the largest and oldest independent association for physicians-in-training.

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