Healthcare professionals and local residents gathered Tuesday night, Aug. 15, for a town hall forum on healthcare hosted by the South Central Iowa Federation of Labor.

On the panel were Dr. John Paschen, Dr. Selden Spencer, State Rep. Lisa Heddens, D-Ames, Attorney Drew Larson and Iowa Policy Project Research Director Peter Fisher. While the presentation focused broadly on the impact of potential legislative and administrative changes at both the state and national level, topics discussed ranged from mental health in children to nursing homes for the elderly, with each panelist having something to add.

Around 50 people attended the meeting, many of them seniors.

Dr. Selden Spencer, a neurologist at McFarland Clinic, shared a story that happened to him earlier in the day.

“One of my patients with extreme MS (multiple sclerosis) missed their appointment which I thought was odd,” Spencer said.” I talked to my receptionist and it turns out he did show up, but they had to turn him away because he wasn’t paying his healthcare bills.”

Both doctors on the panel shared similarly frustrating stories about what Medicare and Medicaid cuts have done to their patients, and their fears for what further changes could do.

“It’s like a game,” said Spencer, in reference to dealing with insurance companies and the government with medicare/medicaid administrations.

According to Heddens, Iowa is one of the worst states in the country when it comes to reimbursing doctors and hospitals for visits from patients on Medicare and Medicaid, which has caused many situations where doctors cannot afford to take those patients.

“Many of my patients get service under title 19 (Medicaid) and they really do rely on it, cuts to these programs are devastating to them,” said Paschen, a pediatrician at McFarland Clinic. Because his patients are children, they are left with few, if any, alternatives other than Medicaid to be able to get healthcare, he said.

Attorney Drew Larson, who is on the board of Bethany Life, a senior living facility in Story City, said further cuts to Medicare in the state will increase deaths among the elderly.

“People are waiting longer to go into assisted living of some sort because they don’t have the financial means, so by the time they get here they’re sick and don’t live as long or have as high a quality of life as they could,” Larson said.

On the other hand, Larson expressed concerns for lack of funding because some patients are living longer, specifically, those with memory issues who require long-term care.

“These people may be physically healthy, but they have to spend 10 or more years in a facility where they require advanced care,” he said. Larson’s comments drew anxious gasps from many in the crowd.

Heddens spoke passionately about the need for quality, accessible mental health care, having a son with a disability. According to Heddens, “There are approximately 130,000 people in the state suffering form mental health conditions, yet there is only one psychiatrist per 25,000 people in Iowa.”

All panelists shared the same frustration with what they view as excessive for-profit aspects of the healthcare industry.

“Lets not confuse anything here,” Spencer said. “The purpose of private health insurance is to make money.”

While not everyone agreed as to exactly which sectors of the industry were at most to blame, they all agreed the Affordable Care Act needs to stay.

“Me and my colleagues always viewed the ACA as a starting point,” Paschen said. “It’s not perfect, but we were moving in the right direction until drastic cuts were made (to the state Medicare and Medicaid budget) and with the potential of repealing the ACA.”