Coming Out about Parkinson’s: Public Health Visionary Peter Beilenson on Ambition, Obamacare, and What We Can Learn from “The Wire”

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Dr. Peter Beilenson — the high-profile Howard County health officer — prefers to keep his personal life out of the press. When he announced publicly his Parkinson’s diagnosis last month, he did it for one reason: to support Obamacare. Diagnosed five years ago, Beilenson, 52, made public his health status the same day the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the central provisions of Obama’s federal health care overhaul.

“I disclosed it because I was so disgusted by the right wing’s constant vilification of the uninsured as ‘getting the poor health they deserve,’ and wanted to make the point that I have Parkinson’s but am fine — because I have insurance,” Beilenson says.

Charged by County Executive Ken Ulman to develop the model public health program in the state, Beilenson’s local efforts reach broad, but his focus stays specific, access to care, that’s his key mantra, access for all.

One major highlight of Beilensons’s five-year tenure as health officer is the implementation of the national award-winning Healthy Howard Initiative, a program that sets criteria for more healthful restaurants and workplaces, sets safety standards (in honor of his tan-seeking teen daughter, Beilenson banned tanning beds for minors), and finds healthcare solutions for the working uninsured. In 2014, six years after its inception, the Howard Health Plan will officially go out of business, Beilenson notes happily, because citizens will be eligible for free or subsidized healthcare.

From 1992-2005, Beilenson served as the Baltimore City health commissioner, under the administrations of Kurt Schmoke and Martin O’Malley. The son of Congressman Tony Beilenson, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1977 to 1997, Beilenson ran for congress in 2006.

The father of five, he lives with his wife Chris and their two youngest children in the Cedarcroft neighborhood of Baltimore City.

I talked to the fast-thinking doctor about his dreams for better healthcare for all, his new “Wire”-related book, and whether he might soon run for congress again.

How has your decision to disclose your Parkinson’s diagnosis impacted your daily life? Will you continue to create conversation of your health situation to further endorse or illustrate your health causes?

It hasn’t affected my daily life at all… I am generally fairly private about my personal life, but would speak out in the future if the situation warranted it.

What is the central challenge facing Obamacare in early days?

The central challenge is overcoming the “bumper sticker” negative tirades from opponents and to take back the debate by pointing out the numerous benefits of the plan.

Everyone needs health care at some point in their life and it shouldn’t matter what kind of work they do or income they have — it is a basic human right.

And what is the central advantage of Obamacare for our country, in terms that an opponent might understand/be moved by?

Access. I’m fine because I have insurance. For another person that has Parkinson’s, who is not offered health coverage, you would not be able to afford the healthcare, the neurologist… [Before Obamacare,] if you joined a company who helps to subsidize your buying of individual insurance, you’re not going to be able to get it because of this preexisting condition.

In addition to the Healthy Howard Health Plan, you have two more ambitious public health initiatives in play. The Evergreen Project, a product of the Affordable Care Act, is a member-run cooperative that will compete with big insurance, establishing clinics throughout the state. What’s the current status?

The Evergreen Project is the most important program I’ve worked on in 20 years… We’re now waiting to hear from the Feds, if we’re going to get it – we hope to hear in the next month. We’d begin enrolling in 2013. Serving in January of 2014.

Evergreen would allow patients to have a neighborhood-based primary care provider. A smaller patient panel, meaning fewer patients a day [without cutting healthcare workers’ salaries]. A health coach at every center. As well as social worker. And a care coordinator. [This is] more efficient communication.

If your primary care physician sees a lump, the ENT can see it immediately… You get answers sooner. Visits can be fewer. [Thanks to an agreed upon method of] telemedicine, you can do some of this at home. I can take a picture of my kid’s rash on my cell, send to my primary care doc…then she says it’s nothing or it looks bad… [This is] provider-to-patient [communication] as well as provider-to-provider. [Evergreen] should be available in most populated areas of our state in the next three to four years.

What is the Door to Healthcare?

Part of the Healthy Howard network, it provides a single door to healthcare for anyone uninsured. There are multiple healthcare providers like Medicaid, but in the past if you didn’t qualify you gave up. Actually, you may have been eligible for another program. One thing Door to Healthcare does is to serve as a navigator. [As of this year], we have over 7000 people enrolled, out of the 20,000 uninsured in Howard. A lot more people will soon be eligible for care, so we will expand our services.

When did you define your most important goals, and what are they?

Professionally — on September 10, 1968, when my next-door neighbor who was 14 died of leukemia and I decided I wanted to be a doctor.  Personally — early in life, I knew I wanted to be very involved with my kids.

What is the best advice you ever got that you followed? The worst advice, and did you follow it?

Best advice: If a job comes along that you’re not sure you’re ready for, take it because it may never come again (the Baltimore City Health Commissioner job!).

Worst advice: Don’t get remarried so quickly — didn’t follow it and married Chris, the love of my life.

Sum up your life philosophy in one sentence.

If you get knocked down, get back up and keep trying.

What are the three most surprising truths you’ve discovered in your lifetime?

1. Things generally work out for the best.  2. It’s amazing what a few dedicated people can accomplish. 3. Life’s long — try not to burn bridges (esp. in a small town like Baltimore!).

What is the best moment of the day?

Sitting with my wife at the kitchen table every evening going over the day’s events

What is your new book called, and what’s it about?

Tapping into the Wire. Comes out September 6 through Hopkins Press. Co-written with Patrick McGuire, and using clips from the HBO series “The Wire” to set the scene, the book examines the causes and potential solutions to a variety of urban issues, which affect Baltimore and most other big cities. I teach the “Baltimore and the Wire” [at JHU], in which we use episodes to highlight major urban issues. To discuss why they arise, and discuss potential solutions.

[I’ve learned over time that] you need a four-legged stool to make a community successful: those legs are access to healthcare and healthful foods, good education, decent housing, and livable wage jobs preferable in the neighborhood. It’s got to be public health writ large…

Did any one local figure heavily influence your professional thinking and evolution?

[Kurt] Schmoke was important; I wasn’t in his inner circle, but he was a mentor. I give him a lot of credit for how he talked about the big issues, education reform, drug policy…he got me thinking more broadly about public health.

Fitness is very important to you. What is your workout routine? Have you adjusted your schedule since your diagnosis?

I don’t run as much as I used to do, but I do the elliptical at the gym for about an hour four times a week.

Do you follow a strict diet? What’s your favorite guilty pleasure food or drink?

No, but I generally eat healthfully. Guilty pleasure: Starbucks Soy Chai Frappuccino. And Skittles.

Any fresh plans to run for congress?

No.

 



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3 COMMENTS

  1. Peter, you are a very valuable community asset and a hero for all of us. We are in your debt for your continuing contributions to our lives.
    Thanks.
    Clinton

  2. Peter
    I look forward to your book and your thoughtful solutions for building a strong four legged stool for Baltimore. We appreciate all that you do.
    Jimmy Wood

  3. Access to health care is so important, it should not be linked to any political personality. I strongly suspect that many people would be more favorablly inclined to the Affordable Health Care act if it were not linked to Barak Obama’s name. The term “Obamacare” promotes a knee-jerk reflex in many individuals, who would never respond to a mention of “Widespread Insurance” or ” Personal Coverage” or some other neutral term.
    I would try to promote access to health care, and the financial aspects of it, with positive factual information about Affordable Health Coverage. Or maybe call it Chaneycare and see who objects 😉

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