Members of North Carolina’s Congressional delegation have gotten deeply involved in health care issues in Washington.
By Gabe Rivin
The election season of 2016 is just around the corner, and with the upcoming congressional elections North Carolinians can expect to see heated TV ads and political debates.
But in the spirit of bipartisanship, a Republican North Carolina congressman has joined a Democratic congressman from the Northeast to launch a caucus to advance primary health care.
The new Primary Care Caucus, co-founded by Reps. David Rouzer (R-NC 7th) and Joe Courtney (D-CT), aims to improve primary care in several ways, the founders said in a press release.
The caucus is intended to educate members of Congress about the importance of primary care. It will advocate the interests of primary care providers and patients. And the caucus will seek changes in federal policy in order to improve citizens’ access to health care, including in underserved and rural areas.
Rouzer, who represents parts of southeastern North Carolina, said that his district has been hit by a shortage of primary care physicians.
“As a result, we have less access and fewer choices of quality health care for families and individuals,” he said in a video announcing the caucus’ formation, which is posted on the website of the American Academy of Family Physicians.
Rouzer also said that primary care is a crucial health service.
“Our primary care physicians, nurse practitioners and physician assistants are critical to ensuring that all communities, both rural and urban, have access to the best services and providers,” he said.
The benefits of primary care
Rouzer’s claim is backed by research. In numerous studies, researchers have found that patients benefit from primary care. And this, in turn, can benefit the entire health-care system. In one study, researchers at Johns Hopkins University and New York University reviewed current academic literature and found that increased primary care could improve health care, at a lower cost, throughout the U.S.
Another report, by researchers at the RAND Corporation, echoed these findings, saying that “the determined pursuit of primary care as a health systems orientation is likely to have beneficial effects on the quality, outcomes, and cost of U.S. health care.”
That kind of determined pursuit is a key feature of the Affordable Care Act, the 2010 federal law also known as Obamacare. The law offers support in several ways for primary care. For one, the law has provided about $230 million to train medical residents, nurse practitioners and physician assistants in primary care. These funds are intended to increase the number of primary care providers.
The ACA provides financial incentives for “medical homes,” where people receive coordinated health care. The law also provided increased payments through Medicaid and Medicare to primary care providers, though those payments only lasted through the beginning of 2015.
Caucusing through Congress
North Carolina Rep. David Price (D-4th) joined the Primary Care Caucus, and said he hopes the new group will support provisions in the ACA that buoy primary care, which he called a “key feature” of the law.
Price said primary care hasn’t received the attention it should, including in medical schools. Medical students often pursue specialized forms of medicine, he said, but primary care is “extremely important to every person in the system.”
He’s not alone in thinking about primary care. So far, the Primary Care Caucus has 17 members from the House of Representatives, including three from North Carolina: Reps. Rouzer, Price and Walter Jones (R-3rd).
Price explained that congressional caucuses serve a number of purposes.
For one, caucuses create networks for members of Congress with similar interests. These networks allow members to communicate with each other, Price said. They can also be important during chamber-wide policy debates, he added.
“More often, [it’s] organizing support for a program that might be threatened or might need more robust funding,” Price said.
Congressional caucuses can also drive new legislation and can serve to signal to constituents that a topic is of special importance to the district, he said.
For example, Price is involved in the Congressional Public Health Caucus. He said some public health advocates from the Gillings School of Global Public Health at UNC-Chapel Hill, which is in his district, asked him to get involved.
“Often when groups visit, they ask that you explicitly associate yourself with a caucus,” he said, noting that he also has a personal interest in public health and that he has spoken to both faculty and students at the school.
North Carolina’s elected members of the U.S. House serve on and have helped form a number of congressional caucuses: Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-1st) co-chairs the Congressional Out of Poverty Caucus, while Walter Jones co-chairs the Congressional Home Health Caucus. Price co-chairs the Congressional Multiple Sclerosis Caucus and the Congressional Vision Caucus and is a member of others.
There are hundreds of congressional caucuses and they run the gamut of topics from the Congressional Baseball Caucus to the Congressional Bourbon Caucus and even a Congressional Cut Flower Caucus.
NC Reps. acting as health-related caucus chairs:
Butterfield: Congressional Out of Poverty Caucus
Ellmers: Congressional Eating Disorders Awareness Caucus
Jones: Congressional Home Health Caucus
Price: Congressional Multiple Sclerosis Caucus, Congressional Vision Caucus
Rose Hoban contributed reporting to this story.
Cover photo courtesy William Warby, flickr creative commons