Senator Bill Purcell (D-Laurinburg) is a pediatrician who has served in the NC General Assembly for 15 years. Before coming to the legislature, Dr. Purcell served as the mayor of Laurinburg.
This year, the 82-year-old Purcell decided it was time to retire from public life, and did not seek re-election. NC Health News editor Rose Hoban caught up with Sen. Purcell just before he packed up his office in the legislative office building in Raleigh.
NC Health News: What made you decide to seek public office in the first place?
Sen. Bill Purcell: You do the best job you can as a doctor but also, you should look for ways to serve your community. Especially in small communities we’ve got a limited number of people who have got their education and they should feel responsible to do more.
NCHN: What’s the most challenging thing about serving in the legislature?
Purcell: Well, It’s supposed to be a citizen’s legislature where you can have a job and come up here for a weekly meeting, but its not like that. There’s always something going on. You’ve gotta go to this meeting and that meeting. There’s always somewhere you’ve gotta go.
NCHN: Are there any pieces of legislation that are memorable for you?
Purcell: When I arrived, there was an ash tray at everyone’s desks (on the floor of the legislature). It was a gradual process but we made it so that those who wanted to smoke had to go to the back corner and they got rid of the ashtrays. That was really the first thing we did about smoking.
The next thing we did was make the legislative building smoke free. Then, we made the state motor pool smoke-free. Then, we went to the university to make their buildings smoke-free but even before the law said that public schools had to be smoke-free a lot of the campuses went ahead and made their buildings smoke-free.
It all came about after the U.S Surgeon General’s report that there really was no safe exposure to secondhand smoke. That was really the key to get this thing going. It was a really profound statement. There are about 50 carcinogens in smoke that people near smokers get exposed to.
The big thing we had not done was to make bars and work places smoke-free, so I introduced the bill in the Senate and (former Representative) Hugh Holliman, who had had lung cancer, introduced it in the House. We decided to let his bill go first. When the vote came to the Senate, we needed two votes to pass it. All the Republicans were against it, and I knew if this bill went down it would be a long time until we got it that far again.
Sen. Basnight (former Senate President Pro Tempore) offered his help. He’s a restaurant owner and he brought me and two Democrats who were going to vote against it into his office and they said they wouldn’t support it. So I suggested that we restrict smoking in restaurants and bars and leave workplaces alone. They said okay but give us country clubs and I said, “You’ve got a deal.”
Now, I hear from bars that their business is better than it had ever been and they’re seeing people they hadn’t seen in years. Seventy-four percent of the public supported the bill, but that wasn’t true in the General Assembly. It’s just a different world up here.
I think in the 15 years, I think that will have the greatest impact on healthcare of anything I did here.
NCHN: Was it always so serious?
Purcell: Oh, no, I’ve also had a bit of fun things while in the General Assembly. For example, there was a civics class at Stanley High School that was wondering if they could influence government. They did their research and found out that North Carolina did not have an official carnivorous plant so they came to me wanting to make the Venus Flytrap North Carolina’s official carnivorous plant.
Those students showed they could influence government by working together and I thought that was a good lesson.
NCHN: Has anything changed in the time you’ve been here?
Purcell: I think it’s gotten… pauses… less civil. I have no reason not to tell you my true feelings about these things. For example, a lot of the new Republican people were made committee chairs of major committees as soon as they got here. That was not something that it used to be like. You used to have to be here at least a year or two before you could be a chair of anything so you could see how this place works.
Recently, in committee, one Democrat raised his hand and the committee head called on three Republicans before getting to him. When he finally spoke up reminding them that he had a question, he was told that he could ask after the next speaker. That’s the kind of lack of respect that I’ve seen that I just hadn’t seen in years past. People talk about working together and I just don’t see how you do that with that kind of activity.
NCHN: Well, Republicans will say that was the way it was when Democrats were in control. You were in the majority for a long time, now you’re in the minority, isn’t that just life in the minority?
Purcell: I think it is a lot of that… Republicans had to feel some disenchantment when they were in the minority but I just don’t think there’s been this lack of civility before between the two groups. I just think things have gotten more partisan and less civil by the way people act.
NCHN: Any legislative disappointments?
Purcell: All of the scientific evidence would suggest that the increased use of tanning beds shows a rising rate of melanoma in young people under 18 years old. So despite the best dermatology experts we have in this state, I was told in the Senate that we could not hear that bill because it would put people out of work and take rights away from the parents.
We also passed a bill that says you can’t use scientific evidence to predict sea level rises. So the scientific evidence that I’ve been taught in my life that you should pay some attention to… that seems to not make a difference on these issues. I think it’s kind of discouraging that sometimes scientific evidence has to take a back seat to political things.
I was on the mental health oversight committee when we first started the changes… and I just am disappointed that we were not able to successfully get that worked out in all these years. I would have hoped that in the ten years that we had worked on it, we could have gotten this to a state-of-the-art mental health system in North Carolina, but we haven’t done that. That’s disappointing.
NCHN: What has been the significance of you being a physician to your fellow legislators?
Purcell: It’s been my experience that physicians get on committees that people don’t want to fool with and it gives you some unique opportunities. Some people ask me about what I think about a particular health issue and so in that way I’ve had that opportunity on a number of occasions. You also get put on committees – like the Child Fatality Task Force – that not a lot of people want to be on for some reason and it just gives you these wonderful opportunities.
NCHN: Has your position as a physician allowed you to take some political risks that maybe others have not been able to take?
Purcell: Yes, I think so… you know, you get into things like the abortion issue. When I was an intern, I took a rotating internship. And this was before you could get a legal abortion in America. The rich folks could fly to Canada, poor folks had no choice.
Well, during a three month period, I personally took care of two young ladies, one was 18 and one was 19, who came in at different times during my rotation. For whatever reasons, the pregnancy was so threatening to them, that they wanted to get rid of it. So, they had turned to what they heard about using wire coat hangers and both of them died right in front of me as we were pumping blood into them, and trying to save their lives. And I think that’s the kind of thing you’re going to see again if you just make if impossible for people to have pregnancies terminated.
I’ll never forget the looks on those girls faces as they died, and that was two cases that I saw in hospital on one shift, and I think about the number of cases that must be happening across America. I don’t know how many there were, but I just can’t believe we were the only place seeing this. And so because of that, I have a little bit of a different view on the whole issue.
They had no choice, if they… well, they could have not done it obviously, but they were gonna do it some way. I’m not saying abortion is right or wrong but I’m saying this was not right.
NCHN: What are your thoughts on health reform?
Purcell: Probably in my practice, 65 percent of the patients were Medicaid. We have one and a half million North Carolinians who have no health insurance, they put off seeing the doctor, and the only place they can go really is the ER and that’s expensive.
I asked a hospital administrator recently aren’t you better off if people who come to you have some kind of insurance, he said, yes we are. So it would seem to me that if the people who come to the emergency room have health coverage from the Affordable Care Act, they’re gonna be better off than them coming with nothing. Because all hospitals can do then is raise the costs for those people who have insurance.
NCHN: So, what happens to you now?
Purcell: I believe you have to keep your brain working. I have friends who play golf three times a week and have coffee with the guys and talk about how bad politics is, but that’s not for me. I’ve worked all my life and couldn’t envision stopping at 65.
I don’t know… there are a lot of things I’ve put off over the years… I’ve got grandchildren. I haven’t thought a lot about it. I’ll be 82 this year, it’s time to get out, I’ve been here long enough!
The only two physicians in the previous legislature, Purcell and Sen. Eric Mansfield, will not be returning this coming session. NC Health News aims bring an interview with incoming physician-legislator, neurologist Jim Fulghum (R-Wake County), once the new legislature is sworn in.