Ask Lee Ann Pearse, MD, why she’s such a tireless advocate for Medicaid patients — and for medicine in general — and the Dallas-based pediatric cardiologist tells one story after another.
Many of them originate in the clinic she visits twice a month in Paris, in Northeast Texas near the Oklahoma border. One Medicaid patient, for instance, drove a long way from Oklahoma to see Dr. Pearse.
“She’s very proud, and she said, ‘Can I come two months from now instead of next month? Because I won’t have enough money at the end of the month for the gas or to pay for the food. I can budget it by waiting two months,’” Dr. Pearse recalled. “I probably spend more on Starbucks a week.”
That’s the kind of personal story she shares to motivate fellow physicians and the many lawmakers she lobbies on a regular basis. Her passion earned her an appointment to Gov. Rick Perry’s task force on Medicaid reform in 2003. That work catalyzed her service on the Dallas County Medical Society (DCMS) Legislative Affairs Committee, the Texas Medical Association’s Council on Legislation and ad hoc Committee on Medicaid Reform, and TEXPAC.
Her activism gets attention: U.S. Reps. Pete Sessions (R-Dallas) and Michael Burgess (R-Lewisville) attended her installation as DCMS president in 2016. In fact, Representative Sessions was one of the first people she lobbied about improving Medicaid services.
“He truly seemed to listen, and there was a moment when it seemed like something in his prior opinion seemed to change,” Dr. Pearse said. “I feel like I have had his ear ever since, which I consider a big success.”
Medicine runs in Dr. Pearse’s family. Her mother was a nurse and her father was a country doctor in Yuma, Colo., a town of about 2,500.
“In many ways, they were my heroes,” she said. “They took care of everybody. [Patients] may have paid with corn or chickens or whatever at that time, but they had access to care.”
After completing residency in Virginia and a fellowship in Colorado, she set up a pediatric cardiology transplant program at the University of Miami. She moved to Texas in 1997 and quickly got involved in advocacy, including for expanded Medicaid services. For instance, many women qualify for Medicaid only while they are pregnant and for two months afterwards, a huge issue in a state with a high rate of maternal death and illness.
She targets her advocacy toward her fellow physicians as well as politicians.
“If you’re [a physician] who doesn’t take Medicaid, you may be removed from the struggles that people with Medicaid have,” Dr. Pearse said. “There I would say, listen to the folks who do take Medicaid and help champion their cause. It doesn’t mean that you have to take Medicaid if you don’t. But I think in an organization as large as TMA, if you could get everybody to work together like we did for tort reform, the voice itself would be helpful.”
Her goal: To make sure her audience understands what Medicaid patients are up against.
“Once you start looking into their faces and hearing their stories you don’t walk away unchanged,” she said. “Next time when people are talking about how we’re spending so much money on Medicaid, somebody’s face will show up and not just a bottom-line figure.”
This kind of tenacity is necessary, but also frustrating at times, Dr. Pearse says. Reforming policies and passing legislation takes time. Progress in Washington, D.C., and Austin often is measured by one changed opinion at a time. That’s why being a doctor still gives her the biggest sense of accomplishment.
“It’s a long day in Paris because we have to leave [Dallas] early in the morning and get back late at night,” she said. “But [one day recently] right before we left, we had an add-on patient who is 2, and before she left she wanted to grab my hand and go skipping down the hallway. And I thought, ‘That’s why I do this.’”
Tex Med. 2018;114(8):48
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