by MELISSA ROSENBERG
As the cost of health care continues to rise and more Americans go uninsured, Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) said that while sweeping changes to the health care system are needed to solve the country’s health care problems, starting with small changes could make an immediate impact.
According to Shuler, streamlining health care information systems and encouraging Americans to lead healthier lives are two small, but important, ways to lower the cost of health care and make it available to more Americans.
“We all know what the issues are: the high numbers of the uninsured and the high cost of finding good health care. I think taking smaller steps is a very good start to lowering the cost of health care,” Shuler said in an interview.
Shuler said his ideas for fixing health care in America come from his experience as former chief executive of the Tennessee-based health-care information systems company, MyHealthCard. The company provides products that electronically store medical records and personal health information using smartcard technology. He said streamlining information systems cuts down on the number of costly tests and medical services that must be repeated when patients change doctors or hospitals.
“I actually ran a health care company that was involved in the IT side of the hospitals and their information systems,” Shuler said. “We have to make sure that when a patient is transported from one hospital to another hospital or from a primary care physician to a specialist that their services are not duplicated, that they don’t run the same tests when that information can be transferred with the patient.”
In mid-February, Shuler visited the WNC Health Network in his district, a health care group that has made drastic changes to improve their information systems. The group, comprised of 16 hospitals, county health departments and other health care providers, is connected through a data link system that allows information to be transferred between the hospitals.
“I was blown away by the progress that the hospitals in my district have been making,” Shuler said. “Making sure the patient, the primary-care physician and the specialist all have the same information to derive from, makes better healthcare progress for our district.”
He added that information-sharing like the program in North Carolina, cuts down on the repetition of tests and services, which “certainly lowers the cost of health care.”
Shuler also said that Americans could also make changes in their personal lives to lower the overall cost of healthcare.
“I think it is a personal issue for all of us,” Shuler said. “It is just like our energy policies, where we have to cut the lights off so that we do a better job of conserving energy. We have to do a much better job, as Americans, to live a healthier life, to exercise, to eat properly. Those things alone, the preventative health care we do for ourselves, will lower the cost of health care.”
As a new face in Congress, Shuler said he was worried that important issues such as health care would get lost in partisan politics, but he has been pleasantly surprised by the support he’s felt from both sides of the aisle.
“When you really look at it Republicans and Democrats can come together and get things done,” Shuler said. “I’m most happy about the bipartisan work I’ve seen done in Congress since I’ve started.”
Being congressman has put Shuler in the spotlight, but the freshman congressman from North Carolina’s 11th District is not new to media attention. He first rose to prominence in the District on the football field. After a successful career at the University of Tennessee, where he was named NCAA Male Athlete of the Year and in 1993, was runner-up for the Heisman Trophy, which is awarded to the top college football player. Shuler played quarterback for the Washington Redskins from 1994 to 1996.
Before his first season, a prolonged contract negotiation kept Shuler from starting training camp with the rest of the team, a move that left him unpopular with many Redskins fans. Shuler went on to complete less than half of his passes during his first two seasons and the team won only nine of its 32 games during that span. This sub-par performance led to the loss of his job as starting quarterback and ultimately, the team traded Shuler to the New Orleans Saints after the 1996 season.
Shuler retired from professional football in 1997 and became an entrepreneur, running several small companies and a real estate brokerage firm before becoming a member of the House of Representatives.
“I didn’t have many victories the last time I was here in D.C.,” Shuler said. “But I know this time, it’s not a game. The work I’m doing now impacts everyone.”