Why Did Doctor Margaret Flowers Decide to Get Arrested (Twice)?

The best Howard Zinn quote I heard after his recent death was this:

“The problem is civil obedience.”

That’s not Doctor Margaret Flowers’ problem.

What sort of fire burns in the heart of this soft-spoken, thoughtful pediatrician that would lead her to choose arrest, a course of action that she later admitted was very frightening?

Here’s some background, from the transcript of Bill Moyers’ recent interview with Doctor Flowers:

BILL MOYERS: Make me an offer I can’t refuse. That’s what President Obama said, when he talks about health care reform during his State of the Union last week.

PRESIDENT OBAMA : If anyone from either party has a better approach that will bring down premiums, bring down the deficit, cover the uninsured, strengthen medicare for seniors and stop insurance company abuses, let me know. Let me know. Let me know. I’m eager to see it.

BILL MOYERS: Dr. Margaret Flowers took him at his word.

MALE VOICE (of Secret Service guard at White House gate): Can I help you?

DR. MARGARET FLOWERS: Well, last night the President gave his State of the Union address, and I’m a physician. I’m the Congressional Fellow with Physicians for National Health Program.

BILL MOYERS: The very next day she was outside the White House with a letter urging the President to revive the idea of single-payer healthcare. Medicare for all.

MALE VOICE: We can’t accept anything, so you’ll have to send it through the mail.

BILL MOYERS: The Secret Service turned Dr. Flowers away, but she didn’t give up. She tried again the next day in Baltimore, where once again, President Obama made his offer to hear ideas on health reform and once again, she tried to deliver her letter.

DR. MARGARET FLOWERS: Is there somebody here who’s in charge that can have somebody who’s a representative of the President, come and take this?

BILL MOYERS: This time, she and her colleague, Dr. Carol Paris, refused to move when security told them to, because Dr. Flowers said, “We didn’t want to continue to be excluded, marginalized and ignored.”

They were arrested.

DR. MARGARET FLOWERS: And we haven’t been heard. They continue to exclude us.

BILL MOYERS: When I saw pictures of Margaret Flowers being led away, I remembered those famous words attributed to another Margaret, the anthropologist Margaret Mead who said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Later, in the interview with Moyers, Doctor Flowers explains the problem with the current system that led her to conclude that single-payer is the best answer:

BILL MOYERS: Why did you feel you weren’t able to do the medicine you wanted to do, because of the health care system?

DR. MARGARET FLOWERS: Well, it started when I was working in the rural hospital where I was. And when we would admit a patient to the hospital, the first person that would come to visit us was someone from utilization review, which is the group that interfaces with the insurance company. And they would say, “You have this many days to make this patient better. This is how many days they’ve been authorized for.” And what we often found is that didn’t match the number of days that we felt the patient needed to be in the hospital. So it puts you in a really uncomfortable position of, do you send a child home before they’re ready? And then in private practices it’s the same kind of thing, you see a patient, you determine what’s the best treatment, and then the insurance company says, “No they can’t have that test” or can’t have that medicine. It didn’t make sense. It wasn’t based on what the patients need. It was based on what the insurance companies could get away with.

BILL MOYERS: Was there the eureka moment?

DR. MARGARET FLOWERS: It was a eureka moment when our office manager sat down with us in our practice and said, “Okay, if we want to keep in business, this is what you need to do. You can only see one well child a day, and the rest of the patients have to all be sick patients that you can churn through this many patients each hour.” And if your patient happens to bring up something else that’s bothering them, you have to ask them to reschedule and come back to talk about that other thing, which means they have to take, you know, more time off of work and continue to carry that worry with them, while they’re waiting for the next appointment. That just wasn’t why I went into medicine. I like the relationship that I have with patients. I want to take care of them. And when you build that relationship with your patient and you get to know them, you can provide the best care for them, not the way things are right now.

BILL MOYERS: But you know, you didn’t go into medicine to get arrested. And yet there you are, on the– out there being handcuffed and led away?

DR. MARGARET FLOWERS: Yeah, I never really dreamed that this was a path that I would go down. I mean, I’m a mother. Good citizen in my community. But it came to a point where that was the only way that we could have our voice heard. We were being completely excluded, when we tried the traditional avenues of having our voice heard. We were just put aside.

This is an excellent, fascinating interview with an ordinary American citizen who shows us that ordinary citizens can become extraordinary when the times call for it.

Watch it here:

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