By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — Deb Bieging, a pediatrician from Chippewa Falls who also is the director of the free clinic in Chippewa Falls, is running in the November 6 election for representative of the 67th state Assembly district as a Democratic candidate.
Bieging participated in a “meet and greet” event at the Grapevine Senior Center in Colfax on October 5 and stopped at the Colfax Messenger office prior to the event at the Grapevine.
Bieging and her husband, Jim, are both physicians and moved to Chippewa Falls 20 years ago.
“We spent as much as time interviewing the schools as we did the clinics because that was a really big deal to us. We wanted a good education for our children, And it has been a great place to live,” Bieging said.
Bieging and her husband have three children who all graduated from Chi Hi in Chippewa Falls: Katie, Erik and Kevin.
Bieging was born on an Army base in Virginia when her father was in the service. She graduated from high school in Stillwater, and she and her husband practiced in Hibbing, Minnesota, prior to moving to Chippewa Falls.
When asked why she decided to run for representative of the state’s 67th Assembly district, Bieging said two major concerns for her are education and health care.
“One of the things that really has concerned me over the past couple of years is what has been happening to education. The funding that has been cut. That so many of the public employees, particularly the teachers, are seen as the problem. They are demoralized. If we were moving now, I’m not sure this would be such an appealing place,” she said.
“Wisconsin has such a (good) reputation for education and that was one of things that (convinced) us to move here. I feel that things are moving in the wrong direction in terms of education, which I think is really important,” Bieging said.
Another reason that Wisconsin was an appealing place to practice was because the state had given access to health care to children, she said.
“As my own children got older, I became more aware that as some children get older, as they get into their 20s, then they no longer have access to health care,” Bieging said.
Bieging practiced as a primary pediatric care physician for 25 years before becoming the director of the free clinic five years ago.
She and her husband are both involved with the free clinic.
The free clinic started six years ago and is open one night a week in a church basement in Chippewa Falls.
“There are many partners in the community for the free clinic,” Bieging said.
When Bieging first started working at the free clinic, approximately 16 patients would come to the clinic in one night — now it is up to 48 patients per night.
The poor economy, increasing health care costs and less access to health care programs are responsible for the increase.
“A few years ago, Wisconsin was opening up Badger Care to childless adults. There were strict guidelines about income. And we worked really hard to get eligible people signed up. Nobody’s health care needs can be met by a clinic that is open four hours a week with no x-ray and very limited, if any, access to referrals. That’s not the answer,” Bieging said.
“The number of people who don’t have any (health care) is mind boggling. We worked hard to get people on (Badger Care). After six months they stopped the program. The waiting list went up to 100,000 before they stopped putting people on the waiting list,” she said.
“These are people who have nothing and are between the ages of 19 and 64. Most of those people are working. Or they are farmers. Or they are people trying to run a small business,” Bieging said.
One man lost his job and was trying to start his own small business. His wife was employed part-time with no benefits but thought she might eventually get full-time work with benefits.
“He said he thought he’d try to open his own business. And then he had a heart attack. Tens of thousands of dollars in bills. He got medication, one of which was $200 a month. Of course, his business had to be put on hold. What is someone supposed to do?” Bieging said.
“I could tell you story after story. And it’s not just people who have made bad choices. I’m not going to tell you there are not people who have made bad choices who come to the free clinic. But the majority of them are ‘there but for the grace of God,’” she said.
“And yet, over the past couple of years, support for people who are in that situation has been pulled back and pulled back and funneled into things that don’t seem to be helping our economy. A lot of tax cuts. Things like you can get a tax deduction for junk mail,” Bieging said.
Politicians say society cannot afford to provide health care for those who do not have insurance, but Bieging says that the alternative of not providing health care costs society even more.
“The combination of the economy and the rising health care costs has been particularly difficult. I’ve seen it at the free clinic, people in their 50s and early 60s, they may have a number of health problems but they don’t have access to health care. It’s things that if you take care of them, they won’t be that expensive. It’s not expensive care but it’s essential,” Bieging said.
“If you have diabetes, and you don’t have access to health care, you’re not going to go in for regular checkups and getting your labs monitored and taking your medicine. You can’t afford it. But if you go into kidney failure because your diabetes is out of control, then you’re going to go into the ER and then you’re going to need all of this care. You still don’t have any money. The hospital isn’t going to get paid. Who do you think pays for all of that? Those of us who do have insurance, ” she said.
“It’s not just a matter of helping people. Economically it doesn’t make any sense because we’re still paying for the expensive care. We’re not paying for it through taxes. We’re paying for it through higher health care bills. There’s not a magic pot of money that hospitals can draw from for charity care. Basically it all comes from us,” Bieging said.
High blood pressure is another case in point. If people do not have access to health care to monitor their blood pressure and get the medication they need, then they run the risk of having a stroke and ending up in a nursing home. And once again, the rest of society pays more in the long run, Bieging said.
“I feel really strongly that we need to look at the cost of health care. Not just shifting costs around but what is it costing and why is it costing so much,” she said.
“We spend more on health care than any other country in the world, and yet we leave so many people out,” Bieging said.
The World Health Organization ranks the United States health care system as 37th in the world, with Costa Rica being 36th and Slovenia being 38th.
In terms of preventable deaths per 100,000 people, the World Health Organization ranks the United States as 14th, with 110 preventable deaths per 100,000 people.
“If you look in the state Assembly, there are 23 people who are described as small businessmen or self-employed. There are ten attorneys. There are about eight farmers. But there’s one doctor, one nurse and one physical therapist. And that’s all of anybody who has experience (in health care) out of the 99 Assembly people. And I think we could use more people that have that experience,” Bieging said.
“I’m not going to tell people when I’m knocking on doors that they should vote for me because I’ll get it all fixed. But we have to start with at least some people who have worked in the system. Health care costs can’t keep going like this. We can’t keep making it harder for people to get the basic care, the take-care-of-your-blood-pressure care,” Bieging said.
Many of the problems with the health care system would have to be addressed at the federal level, but the state can also have some influence over health care costs, she said.
“You have to look to the future of what you’re doing. As a pediatrician, I am used to looking at what you do now and what impact it will have years down the road. In both education and health care you have to look ahead,” Bieging said.
“I know I am not going to be the first Assembly representative who makes everyone happy with the way I vote, with the decisions I make. But you do owe people the respect of listening, and you owe people an explanation for why you chose to vote the way you did, and the reason needs to be public so people are aware of it. I think that’s important. I will do everything in my power to communicate with people,” Bieging said.
The Colfax Messenger sent an e-mail to state Representative Tom Larson, the incumbent representative for the 67th Assembly district, to also offer him an opportunity for an interview about his candidacy and a story in the newspaper.
As of press time, the Messenger had not yet heard back from Larson.