Knowing Hillary

My wife and I and our two children have known Hillary, President Clinton and Chelsea for more than 30 years. That is since we all began going to Renaissance Weekend for New Years in South Carolina in the 1980s. The Weekend is an annual bi-partisan gathering of families from all over the country: The Republican pollster Frank Luntz, then Republican Senator Larry Pressler, and many other Republicans came. Three days of panels cover a huge and changing range of subjects. The first panel I was on was entitled "What don't you like about your spouse?" I still shiver to think about it.

I reached out to Hillary, then the First Lady, based on these connections in about 1996 when I was Deputy Undersecretary of Commerce for Economics and Statistics. Businesses pay roughly 40-50 percent of healthcare costs and businesses were, in an informal sense, the Commerce Department's constituency. I believed then and still believe that computerized medical records will lead to more coordinated and better care and lower healthcare costs for businesses and everyone else. I also believe computerized records will eventually relieve patients from the enraging piles of undecipherable paperwork bedeviling them. Based on these ideas about computerization, I asked Hillary if we could talk briefly about these records and she set up a meeting in the basement of the White House.

Hillary had thought about computerized medical records during the agonizing battle over Hillary-care, and she brought to the meeting a perfect example of one of the problems such records could solve. It was a young mother on her staff whose child had a chronic medical problem. She said she was forced to carry copies of the child's recent medical exams with her at all times because otherwise each school nurse or doctor who saw the little one would require that the tests be repeated, traumatizing the child and wasting money and time.

The three of us talked only for a few minutes but afterward Hillary set me up quickly with other staffers working on Medicare and other healthcare issues. I am sure she also was responsible for getting me on two interdepartmental working groups, one on the privacy of patient records and the other encouraging medical organizations to develop medical nomenclature that could be used by all computerized systems. Hillary kept me and these issues in mind and followed up as everyone knows she does.

Looking back, we know that cost-reducing changes like computerized records have been slower coming in healthcare than in other areas for several reasons. That's too bad, but I always remember that the Founding Fathers of this great country did not expect quick fixes. Indeed they were acutely suspicious of those who promised them.

My friend Hillary has been working to make healthcare better and more widely available for decades and the country is gradually seeing the results. My own doctor, who has had a computer on his desk for 20 years, finally says that next year the machine will be linked to a larger healthcare network. Many say that medical practice in Washington D.C. lags other parts of the U.S. in the use of integrated computer records, but when it catches up it will save my doctor and others dozens of phone calls each day and allow better coordination of care.

Looking back to that meeting with Hillary, I see her hand as well as President Obama's in this important change that will help everyone.