HELENA - Maryland psychiatrist Carol Paris is calling herself one of the "Baucus 13" these days - in other words, one of the 13 doctors, nurses and activists arrested last month while protesting before a Washington, D.C., health reform hearing chaired by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont.
On Friday, Paris was in Montana, doing what got her arrested: urging Baucus, Congress and the president to consider a single-payer system of national health insurance that covers all citizens equally.
"The next 60 days are critical," she told a rally of 150 single-payer supporters in Helena. "We need to keep the heat on Sen. Baucus (and Congress and the president)."
Single-payer advocates held rallies in six Montana cities on Friday.
Paris, 56, is a member of Physicians for a National Health Program, whose 16,000 members are pushing for a national, publicly funded insurance plan that would replace private health insurance. The group paid for her trip to Montana.
In an interview Friday with the Gazette State Bureau, Paris said she used to believe that the private health insurance market could be reformed to improve health care, and she spent several years lobbying the Maryland Legislature.
"After a few years, I came to the conclusion that it was just a phenomenal waste of time," she said. "At that point, I just said, there has to be a better place for me to put my time and energy."
That was just six months ago, when she joined PNHP, to push for a single-payer system.
But Paris and other Maryland-area members found themselves basically ignored by Congress. They planned to protest - and get arrested - at a Senate Finance Committee hearing on health reform, chaired by Baucus.
Paris and her colleagues showed up the morning of May 5, spread themselves among the gallery and, one by one, interrupted Baucus as he started the meeting.
"I interrupt this so-called public hearing to bring you the following unpaid political announcement: Put single-payer on the table," Paris said before she was arrested. "My name is Dr. Carol Paris, and I approved this message."
Capitol police arrested the protesters, who have been charged with disrupting Congress.
Baucus, a key senator in drafting health reform legislation, said last week that he'll ask that the charges be dropped. He's said repeatedly that a single-payer system won't be considered as a reform and is backing changes that maintain private health insurance.
Baucus spokesman Ty Matsdorf said Friday that the senator and single-payer advocates have the same goal of providing "quality, affordable health care to every American," and that Baucus is confident that Congress will pass meaningful reform to "make this goal a reality."
Paris, however, said her experience in private practice has convinced her that true reform can happen only if private health insurance is replaced with national, public insurance for all.
No longer would physicians' staff have to spend hours dealing with multiple insurers on billing, no longer would patients have to do the same, and no longer would patients have to worry about which doctor is "in network," she said. "You can go to any doctor you want," Paris said. "It's the private insurance industry where you can't go to any place you want."
Paris's arrest was covered prominently by her local newspaper but received little or no attention from national news outlets.
She said she's not surprised: "The mainstream, national media have blacked us out as much as Congress has. ... I would say they're following the lead of the president and Congress and simply not giving us a voice."
Yet Paris said the reaction from her patients, as well as many fellow physicians, has been overwhelmingly positive.
She said she hears "over and over and over again" how people are frustrated by the current system, particularly dealing with their insurer, and that as soon as they understand how single-payer would work, they usually support it.
"I think that the only thing that keeps this from happening is the lack of political will by the president and our Congress," Paris said.