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HE WANTS TO BE THE DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE

Stephen Blythe is running a most unusual race for the U.S. House.

At 56, he's never held elective office.

His campaign coffers hold less than $3,000.

He's considered such a long shot that his own party's congressional campaign committee won't return his calls.

Yet Blythe, a doctor, is a man with a mission: health care for all Americans, regardless of ability to pay.

"We decided early on in this country that no one should have to pay for education,'' says Blythe, a Democrat in a generally Republican area. "We need to look the same way at our health system. No one should be denied an opportunity to do the best for themselves and their family because they don't have access to health care.''

Among Blythe's frustrations in his quixotic bid for Congress is that his Republican opponent - U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon - abruptly announced Jan. 25 that he wouldn't seek an eighth term from Florida's 15th District. A physician himself, Weldon is a fierce critic of universal health care, arguing that "we don't need more government intruding in health care delivery.''

A contest between Weldon and Blythe would have been the first U.S. congressional race since the 1950s to pit two doctors. And given their diametrically opposing views, Blythe had hoped to make it a referendum on an issue that is a major worry for millions of Americans.

Now, with several other candidates vying for a rare open House seat, Blythe realizes his "health care for all'' message will be diluted. Yet he's staying in the race, buoyed by messages like this one posted on his campaign Web site:

My husband and I are in our 50s and shopping for health insurance - what a nightmare! I am sick and tired of politicians who get their health care subsidized by taxpayers saying it would be "socialized medicine."

The uninsured terror

It is a recent Saturday at Lizzie's Bistro in Palm Bay, 50 miles down the coast from the Kennedy Space Center. A few dozen members of the Democratic Women's Club of South Brevard finish their lunch and turn their attention to the trim figure in tweed jacket, open-collar shirt and "Steve Blythe for Congress" button.

"How many of you know someone who's had trouble getting the health care they need?''

At least 20 hands shoot up.

That's a cue for Blythe to talk about the 47-million uninsured Americans, including his 48-year-old patient who will die next year unless he gets a liver transplant. And the uninsured 9-year-old girl who almost succumbed to a ruptured appendix because her mother delayed taking her to the hospital.

"We talk about terror,'' Blythe says. "What about the terror of living every day without insurance and knowing that if you get sick you may lose your house?''

Contrast that to Canada's system, which Blythe got to know after graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and attending osteopathic college on a U.S. Public Health Service scholarship. He was assigned to Lubec, a fishing village in Maine just across the bridge from New Brunswick's Campobello Island.

Rather than make islanders travel 120 miles round trip to the nearest Canadian doctor, the provincial government paid Blythe to treat them at his family practice. All patients had to do was show their Canadian IDs, and all Blythe had to do was give the government their name, date and type of service. Payment arrived four or five weeks later.

"It didn't have all the intricacies of U.S. medicine,'' he says. "Twenty-five percent of my American patients had no money whereas Canadian patients were covered 100 percent of the time. Everything was equal.''

Critics of universal health care point out that Canada has 10 times fewer people than the United States, yet Canadians still complain of months-long waits to see specialists. True, Blythe says, though Americans can also wait weeks or months to see a specialist - and they may never see one unless they have insurance.

"The private sector can't solve the problem, and may be a big part of the problem,'' he tells his Brevard audience. "I'm not sure how the free market system can be expected to provide a very expensive service to 47-million people who can't afford to buy insurance.''

And, he adds, "the free market system isn't all that free - you can go to a hospital and pay $3,000 for a CAT scan that no insurance company pays more than $700 for.''

Blythe gets particularly animated when talking about the refusal of Dave Weldon and other Republicans to support an expansion of the popular Children's Health Care Insurance Program. In December, President Bush vetoed a funding increase that would have provided coverage to an additional 5-million children by letting families with incomes of $40,000 or more buy subsidized insurance.

"One of the arguments was that it would encourage rich people to drop their private insurance,'' Blythe says. "How outrageous that we actually consider a family with $40,000 rich! I cover a family of four, and it will cost me $15,500 for the next year. Who can afford that? I can, great, I'm a doctor, but how about those 'rich' families who make $40,000 a year?''

A major issue

With the economy sinking, affordable health care has become a major issue in the presidential campaign. Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton have plans that attempt to cover everyone, but Blythe doesn't think they go far enough.

Nor is he apt to find much support should he make it to Congress. Of the 10 doctors now in the U.S. House, only one - a Democrat from Washington state - has signed on as a co-sponsor of HR 676, which would expand Medicare to all U.S. citizens.

Blythe knows that political and budgetary pressures will make it hard to get universal health care anytime soon. But he sees no reason not to start moving in that direction, perhaps by lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 60, covering all children and guaranteeing health care for certain conditions regardless of ability to pay.

"Already, if you need kidney dialysis, you get it,'' he says. "Why don't we do the same thing with diabetes? Diabetics without insurance have a much greater chance of ending up with kidney failure or heart disease. It's penny wise and pound foolish not to help those control their disease.''

One of Blythe's challenges is that many voters in Florida's 15th District may be less receptive to his message because they are government employees or veterans who already have good insurance or taxpayer-funded health care. The 15th, which covers all of Indian River County and parts of Brevard, Osceola and Polk, borders the Kennedy Space Center and includes Patrick Air Force Base.

During his years in Congress, Dave Weldon has courted voters with his strong support for NASA and the military. But his ultraconservative views - he was among the most vocal critics of efforts to remove Terri Schiavo's feeding tube - have made him a polarizing figure.

In 2004, Weldon got 65 percent of the vote. In 2006, it dropped to 56 percent even though his Democratic opponent was a 9/11 conspiracy buff whom many people considered a wacko.

Perhaps sensing vulnerability in a difficult year for Republicans - others have already said they won't run again - Weldon decided to return to his internal medicine practice. That has opened the race to a wide field, including a former Brevard County commissioner who appears to have Democratic Party backing.

Yet Blythe plunges ahead with his grass-roots campaign. He thinks his experience treating poor people in Ecuador may help woo Hispanic voters. He hopes that his environmentalism and opposition to the Iraq war will appeal to independents. But on this recent Saturday, his criticism of NASA's plans to return astronauts to the moon draws a negative reaction from one Democratic voter.

"I really do feel passionate about the space program,'' says Donna Kovach, whose husband works for it. "That's really our only claim to fame. All our manufacturing has left us.''

Blythe takes it in stride, borrowing a line from Michael Moore's documentary Sicko and its indictment of American health care policies.

"I've always been a fan of the space program, but I think as a nation we have to prioritize,'' Blythe says. "We've spent so much on Iraq and the war on terror that I don't think we have the luxury of trying to beat the Chinese back to the moon. We have 18,000 Americans who die each year directly as a result of not having health insurance. That's six 9/11s - as Michael Moore says, where's the outrage in that?''

Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at susan@sptimes.com.

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