A universal problem

Craig physician fighting to rectify a 'terrible' social injustice

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The sad truth is this: As dynamic and innovative as the field of medicine is today, it's still part of a system that fails to provide a key demographic with necessary treatment.

That demographic: everyone. Including those who can't afford it.

Dr. Larry Kipe, a long-time area physician, has treated more patients without health insurance than he cares to remember. He comes across them frequently, usually in their most desperate moments.

"Every day," said Kipe, a family physician at Moffat Family Clinic and The Memorial Hospital in Craig. "Mostly, I see them in the emergency room. ... We have the best hospitals and the best physicians in the world, but the way we go about providing health care is wrong. We leave so many people out of what could be done."

Enter the Colorado Academy of Family Physicians, an organization that includes 1,900 members dedicated to "ensuring access to comprehensive and cost-effective health care for families across the state." Kipe, who became president of the organization in July, is spearheading efforts by the group to change the landscape of the state's health care system.

"Our biggest concern as an academy is to work toward universal health care," Kipe said. "We just think it's abysmal, that it's a terrible social thing."

Kipe, 52, who's been in practice for 25 years, has spent the majority of his career working at The Memorial Hospital in Craig and the Moffat Family Clinic. During his medical career, he has also served on the legislative and executive committees and as vice president of the physicians' academy.

Although the notion of a health care system where "everybody gets covered and no one is left behind" may seem unrealistic to some, Kipe is idealistic in his belief that what seems far-fetched can easily become a reality for families across the country.

"Will it happen in the next year?" he asked. "Probably not. But Colorado is taking this very seriously. That's a start."

He said that providing across-the-board health care can be accomplished by pressuring health insurance carriers to "take the fat out of the system" -- the fat being the profit margin built into pricing.

As a family physician, Kipe sees patients complaining from minor aches and pains to those rushed to the emergency room with heart trouble. He describes the range as "from birth to Grant Mortuary."

With a basic health care package for everyone, more people would have access to medications and primary care physicians, thereby reducing health problems, he said.

Pamala Thompson, service excellence officer and spokeswoman for The Memorial Hospital, can attest to Kipe's thoroughness as a physician. He once saved the life of a family member, Thompson said, and his service to the Academy of Family Physicians is a compliment to both the hospital and his abilities as a doctor.

"It's a huge honor for that organization to have him in that role," Thompson said. "He's a huge attribute to TMH. ... Dr. Kipe is one of those doctors always on top of patient care. You never question his abilities."

According to the physicians' academy, 16.9 percent of the state's population is living without health insurance. That percentage translates into 778,000 people -- including children -- or about the same population as Delaware. Nationally, 15.9 percent of all Americans, or 46.6 million live without health insurance.

On Wednesday, the legislative committee for the Academy of Family Physicians met to discuss proposed amendments up for voter consideration in the November general election and the 2007 legislative session.

The committee, made up of eight doctors and lobbyists, agreed to oppose Amendment 44 -- a bill that would legalize the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana -- and support proposals in next year's legislative session that would bolster rural access to health care, and lend aid to the uninsured and underinsured.

Last year, the organization successfully lobbied for House Bill 208, a proposal that ordered a blue-ribbon commission to study the Colorado health care system, said Raquel Alexander, executive vice president of the physicians' academy.

She, like Kipe, said changing the health care system is possible.

"It's slow going, but at least it's being worked on," she said. "It's important enough to us that it's our No. 1 priority."

Until that day comes, Kipe said he'll continue to practice medicine with the same concern for his patients and their care as he has for the past quarter-century. And until then, he'll view the system that fails a significant part of the population as incomplete.

"A lot of what goes on in America," Kipe said, "can be easily prevented."

Joshua Roberts can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 210, or jroberts@craigdailypress.com.

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