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Congressman Walz moved by uninsured man's tragedy

Minnesota Congressman Tim Walz is working is quietly collecting stories from the front lines of medicine, talking to health care providers and consumers. 
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Rochester, MN -- As Congressional Democrats spend their recess defending President Barack Obama's health care reform plan, the news media are focused on vocal opponents who shout at town hall meetings. After all, the verbal confrontations are a much easier story to tell for journalists on tight deadlines and little air time to devote to the complex topic.

Congressman Tim Walz, who represents Minnesota's 1st District, knows that day is coming for him as well. He'll be hosting a town hall forum at some point in the future, and the odds are he'll deal with his fair share of the "shouters" seen nightly on network news and cable TV.

"I'm not locked into one set of solutions," Rep. Walz told KARE Tuesday, "What I do know is we are simply not getting what we pay for now. I want to hear about solutions."

For now Walz is quietly collecting stories from the front lines of medicine, holding small private gatherings with business leaders, health care providers and consumers. 

At one such discussion Tuesday in Rochester, Walz listened to a La Crescent woman tell how about losing her son earlier this year to a disease he managed well until he lost coverage. Sheila Wieser's son Michael died at 27 in February due to complications of , which untreated causes lethal amounts of copper to collect in the liver. 

Doctors diagnosed Michael's ailment while he was a student at North Dakota State University nine years ago, but after receiving blood aspheris treatment and going on medication he rebounded.  In 2003 Michael earned All America honors playing tightend for the Bison.

"He was on our family insurance," Sheila Wieser explained, "After college he kept up the COBRA payments for a time."

But when Michael moved to Las Vegas to pursue a modeling career,  he lost all health coverage. His mother said he saw a doctor from time to time and had some of the required lab tests, but eventually stopped getting check-ups and went off his medication.

"In February he called to say he wasn't feeling well and he had orange urine," Wieser recalled, "And I said you better get yourself to the emergency room right away."

Sheila said the Las Vegas hospital hesitated treating him and at first staff didn't accept Michael's own word that he had Wilson's Disease.  Eventually the staff admitted him into the E.R after he paid $250 in cash up front.

"When we arrived the doctor said 'I'm sorry his condition is grave, he has no health insurance, he hasn't been compliant,' that meant he hadn't been taking that expensive medicine."

Logistics also worked against Michael, one of 12 children Sheila and her husband adopted.

"The doctor said it's a weekend so he has doesn't have much hope of getting out of Nevada for a liver transplant."

Sheila said the hospital social workers were off for the weekend, so she and her husband began calling around the nation for hospitals that do liver transplants.  The Mayo Clinic agreed to accept Michael, so the family booked a medical transport flight back to Minnesota.

"He was too sick by the time they got him. He couldn't be saved."

Walz remarked Michael's story should bother anyone who hears about it, regardless of party affiliation or views on health care reform.

"Some will want to make political hay of all this," Rep. Walz told KARE Tuesday, "But when you hear stories like Michael's it's harder to do that."

an emergency room physician told Walz he sees people on a regular basis who've given up their maintenance medications after losing a job.

"What was once a well controlled condition became something that was threatening the rest of their life and quality of life," Dr. Caleb Schultz told Walz.

He said he regularly sees uninsured E.R. patients with respiratory illnesses, such as asthma, who wait until they can barely function before they visit the hospital.

"I ask them 'How do you get care? What do you do for these?' and they say 'Well when I get real bad and I can't breath anymore, that's when I see a doctor'."

Walz concedes his constituents have a lot of anxiety, because of a lack of specifics in the final health care reform package.

Democrats, in defending the plan, have expended a lot of energy explaining what it won't do, i.e. replace private plans, dismantle Medicare or impose Draconian rationing measures.

"It's that whole 'the devil you know is better than the devil you don't know' idea," Walz said, "But the devil you do know could become a lot worse.  We're not just talking about the 47 million uninsured here, but hundreds of millions of people on the verge of losing their insurance because of job loss, illnesses or decisions by insurers."

At the same time Walz was holding his meeting in Rochester, the Republican Party of Minnesota was unveiling new TV ads opposed to the Obama health care reforms. The ad mimics a prescription pharmaceutical commercial, touting a drug called "Reforma," and warns of side effects such as high costs and age restrictions.

The ads, which target Walz and 7th District Congressman Colin Peterson, urge voters to flood them with calls opposed to the plan. Both Walz and Peterson are Democrats serving in Republican leaning districts.

"I was hoping the Republicans would roll out their alternative health care plan," Walz said in response the the GOP effort aimed at him, "Trust me if everything was fine I wouldn't mess with it if it's not broken, but I've heard too many stories and it's becoming a crisis situation."

Walz said the key for him is seeing a system that gives clinics and doctors more incentives for preventing serious conditions, rather than one that rewards providers based on the volume of acutely and chronically ill people treated.