February 20, 2012 — Coral Gables — Notebook and pen at the ready, Stephanie Mlacker took her seat in the University of Miami’s Storer Auditorium like she typically does every Monday for President Donna E. Shalala’s class on the U.S. Health Care Crisis and waited for the lecture to begin.
The topic of discussion on this day would be the difference between Medicare and Medicaid and how many people put off seeing a physician because of rising health care costs.
It wouldn’t be Shalala who delivered the lesson, but her former boss.
On a Presidents' Day the students will never forget, former President Bill Clinton—whose administration was responsible for a number of health care achievements, from the Family and Medical Leave Act to dramatic improvements in public health—replaced Shalala as teacher for a day, lecturing to her students on a variety of health care-related issues.
Clinton noted that in 1992, when his administration attempted health care reform, the United States was spending 14 percent of its gross domestic product on health care. “Today, it’s 17 percent,” said Clinton, wearing bright yellow golf shoes and a polo shirt after a day on the links. “We’re the only country in the world with a for-profit health system with no cost controls.”
Students had no idea that President Clinton would be a guest lecturer in their class. But when he stepped onto the Storer Auditorium stage, they responded with a standing ovation.
The 42nd president of the United States, Clinton made his comments while seated in a chair next to Shalala, who served as Clinton’s secretary of health and human services. He entered through a side-stage door, receiving a standing ovation from the class of about 300 students, all of whom had no idea he would show up.
“My initial response was a combination of, ‘I can’t feel the right side of my body and my heart rate has never been higher,’ ” said Blake Yagman, describing the way he felt upon seeing Clinton. Yagman, a political science and history major, said he’s always admired Clinton and wants to follow in his footsteps.
“I immediately thought about his campaign days. I was just a little girl then,” said Mlacker, a senior biology major who has applied to Yale medical school.
Students not only got the opportunity to hear Clinton speak but also were allowed to ask questions.
When asked by one student how he would respond to physicians who take losses by accepting Medicare and Medicaid, Clinton said doctors’ net incomes could rise again if their paperwork could be decreased, noting that paperwork for many health care providers has tripled over the past few years.
Sitting next to UM President Donna E. Shalala, President Bill Clinton answers questions from students in her class on the U.S. Health Care Crisis: The Politics of Health Care Reform.
He also addressed whether malpractice reform is needed, saying that the “evidence is not clear” on whether it is a significant driver of health care costs. “But it’s a serious problem in certain areas,” he said, singling out obstetrics and gynecology.
Mary Ellen, a student from upstate New York, asked how the nation should address the growing obesity problem. Saying that high rates of obesity are caused by the way food is now processed and the decreasing number of playgrounds in the nation, Clinton called for measures such as requiring school cafeterias to serve healthier foods and replacing high-calorie foods in vending machines with healthier food choices.
He noted his foundation’s Alliance for a Healthier Generation, whose mission is to eliminate childhood obesity by supporting schools in their efforts to create environments where physical activity and healthy eating are accessible and encouraged. “The model is working pretty well,” Clinton said.
Clinton also addressed the controversial topic of immigration, saying it is the nation’s “meal ticket” to a better future because immigrants help create jobs.
He left students with words of advice. “Develop your minds so that you’re active and curious and soaring,” Clinton said. “You need to be able to look at a newspaper and realize that a five-paragraph story at the bottom of an inside page may be more important to your well-being than a story on the front page.
“Become a sponge of curiosity,” he told students.
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