Vision of Newt
As Speaker, Gingrich Knew How to Divide. Now He Aims to Unite -- to Transform Health Care as We Know It
By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 13, 2004; Page HE01
ATLANTA -- Like any good visionary, Newt Gingrich has a vision -- or two, or three. They come tumbling off his tongue in the self-assured tone of a man who does not hesitate to remind audiences he has a bit of experience making history. The ideas are, in Gingrich's words, "very big."
Take his vision for the health system of the future.
Each morning millions of Americans would awaken and log on to a secure, personal Web page featuring their individual medical record. It would track health status -- weight, height, blood pressure, maladies and medications -- and deliver reminders and advice where appropriate for managing their diseases and conditions.
When they needed care, patients would shop online, comparing prices and quality scores of the doctors and hospitals in the region. They could research the efficacy and risk of various treatments. At the doctor's office, the physician could look up the latest innovations with a tap on a wireless, palm-sized computer and use the same device to write prescriptions or order tests, all of which would automatically be recorded in the patient's electronic file. And if a small-town doctor didn't have the expertise for a certain diagnosis or procedure, she could link via satellite with experts halfway around the globe.
But as Gingrich knows all too well, all of this remains more vision than reality. His own doctor at Emory University in Atlanta cannot track down the results of a heart workup performed on Gingrich four years ago at a nearby cardiac imaging center. Chances are, Gingrich said, the Emory doctors will have to repeat the test, costing more time and money.
That is just one of the many "stunningly stupid" aspects of the U.S. health care system, Gingrich said. We are heading for a future in which we not only spend more money on health care, but the nation as a whole gets sicker, receives inferior care and loses its competitive edge.
Reforming the system will not do, according to Gingrich. It must be transformed.
"There is no middle ground," he declared. "Without transformation, we can't compete and we become western Europe: gracefully decaying, living pretty well, being pretty interesting, but in fact no longer in the game."
The quest to rescue America from that dismal fate is Gingrich's new mission, a project that began with a book and has grown into a new think tank focused on promoting technology, individualism and free market principles in the medical arena.
At a time when people buy gas without meeting an attendant, extract cash from an ATM in a foreign country and read headlines on cell phones, Gingrich is appalled that prescriptions are still written by hand, X-ray results are delivered via the postal service and patients have to pay money for photocopies of their own paper medical files.
He has little patience for the people who say his ideas will require years and large capital investments.
"Most public policy wonks talking about information technology and health are like theoreticians of aeronautics standing at an airport debating whether or not the Wright brothers' theory will ever work as the 747s take off," he said. They are "just crazily out of touch with reality.
"This is not science fiction; this is banking 30 years ago," he added. "All we're trying to do is catch up."
Six years after giving up the raw power of the House speakership, Newt Gingrich is, in the words of Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I), "the ultimate power broker," leveraging his name and contacts to influence the White House, shape legislation and collect lucrative consulting fees from his friends in the corporate world.
Gingrich is credited with helping sell President Bush's $534 billion Medicare drug bill to the AARP and few recalcitrant House Republicans. And he is teaming up with liberal Democrats such as Kennedy to promote high-tech improvements in medicine.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Gingrich, center, talks with brothers Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), left, and Edward Kennedy, Jr. after a Brown University press conference. The conservative firebrand has sided with the liberal Democrats in promoting high-tech improvements in medicine.
(Stew Milne -- AP)