Sheldon Weisgrau is here to tell you the truth about health care reform.
Much of the news about the Affordable Care Act has been filtered through politics, he says, so what often makes it to the public is either distorted, dishonest or flat-out wrong. The Lawrence health consultant is on a mission to change that.
For the past two-and-a-half years, Weisgrau, director of the Health Reform Resource Project — which is funded by six Kansas health foundations— has been traveling the state, informing Kansans about the intricacies of the 2010 health care law. But lately, with major pieces of the act being implemented soon, he's been busy.
During the course of what he calls the "ACA Road Trip," Weisgrau has talked to hundreds of chambers of commerce, Rotary clubs and health care organizations to help people better understand one of the largest pieces of health care legislation to be instituted in decades.
That hasn't always been easy, not when the subject matter is also one of the most controversial laws in decades. People have stormed out of meetings, screamed at him, called him a liar. "I've been doing health policy for 30 years and I've never seen us as angry at each other as we are about this law," he says.
Along the way, Weisgrau has been asked all kinds of Obamacare-related questions, many of them based in an alternate reality. Several seniors — including his own mother, in Florida — have asked him if the law really kicks them out of the health care system when they reach age 70. No, he tells them. Also, he adds, it does not contain "death panels," provide benefits to people in the country illegally or turn over the health care system to either the government or for-profit insurance companies.
"The education that's gone on, for the most part, has been fear-based. I try to cut through that," says Weisgrau, 53, who is married with two children. "My main goal in these talks is to lower the heat a little bit, to make people understand that the vast majority of people won't be directly affected by this, and for the people who will be, the vast majority of them will be affected positively."
An upbringing far from Kansas
If you listen to Weisgrau talk for a few minutes, you'll quickly realize he's not from Kansas. A Queens native, he hasn't lost the New York accent or even the attitude.
Weisgrau grew up the son of a nurse and brother of a physician. In college, he became interested in public health and so, for his graduate school work, attended the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in Baltimore. After graduating, he worked for the state health department and then at the Health Care Financing Administration (now the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services).
"I've always considered myself to be a champion of the underdog," he says. "People with means and money will never have problems in getting their needs met. The more interesting work for me is how do we expand all those great things we have in our health care system to everybody who may need it."
While working for the federal government, Weisgrau got involved in rural health. It was in that field that he met Steve McDowell, of Lawrence, who asked if he wanted to partner with him on a rural health consulting firm in Kansas. Weisgrau, a city boy through and through, thought McDowell was joking. He wasn't. Weisgrau visited Lawrence, liked what he saw and decided to make it his home.
He worked for nearly a decade consulting rural communities and states across the nation on how to design systems that preserved their access to health care. He later did research for the Kansas Health Institute and advised Lawrence call center Vangent after it got the contract to operate 1-800-MEDICARE (Weisgrau notes that the Affordable Care Act hotline, which Vangent will also run, will not be 1-800-OBAMACARE).
A few years ago, six Kansas health foundations came together and decided they needed a way to inform Kansans directly about the new health care law. They needed a public face to spearhead that effort, to people in the state not only about the broad aims of the Affordable Care Act but the minutiae as well. They needed a health-policy guru. They called Weisgrau.
"He really understands what the health care law is all about and he's worked in some of those systems, so he's very knowledgeable about how it affects not only consumers but providers and other nonprofit organizations," said Billie Hall, CEO of the Topeka-based Sunflower Foundation, one of the six Kansas health foundations that make up the Kansas Grantmakers in Health consortium. Hall said that while the role wasn't designed specifically for Weisgrau it might as well have been. "There aren't many people out there who can bring all of those things to the table."
Walking health-policy dictionary
Weisgrau is blessed with the unique ability to break down wonky policy details into succinct sound bites without losing the complexity. For example, he says the Affordable Care Act will give more people private insurance and more people public insurance; the basic way America pays for its health care will not change.
"He's like a Yoda of health care in a lot of ways," said Jon Stewart, CEO of Lawrence's Heartland Community Health Center. "He's been doing this his whole life, so he's very articulate."
"He does a great job of trying to bring these issues down to a very basic level where folks can understand it," added Linda Sheppard, director of health care policy and analysis at the Kansas Insurance Department, who has served on several panels with Weisgrau and, like him, is one of the few people in Kansas to have read the entire 960-page Affordable Care Act. "I would definitely consider him to be one of the most informed people about the law in our state."
Weisgrau has an agreement to head the Health Reform Resource Project through 2015. Beyond that, he isn't sure what he'll be doing but knows his services will be needed somewhere.
"If in some magical fantasy world, the Affordable Care Act was implemented perfectly and worked as expected, we're still going to have health policy problems we're going to have to deal with," he said, later adding: "Health care is never going to be like buying a toaster. We're never going to understand it as well as our providers do. We're always going to have to rely on getting good advice from people we trust."