Countdown to health care crisis...

By Barbara Harris

Jackson Advocate News Service
Jackson, Mississippi

December 16, 2004

Dr. Ron Myers' struggle for survival draws attention of national news media

In just over two weeks, four clinics that serve the health care needs of hundreds of Mississippi Delta residents will close if the state-run malpractice insurance provider does not reconsider cancelling coverage to the clinics' physician proprietor. Dr. Ronald V. Myers Sr. is being forced to close clinics in Tchula, Belzoni, Greenville and Indianola effective Jan. 1, 2005 although no malpractice claims have been filed against Myers in his 16 years of practicing medicine in one of the nation's most health care-deficient regions.

Myers, 48, contends he is a victim of "medical malpractice lynching" and calls the company's actions racial discrimination because a vast majority of his patients are African American and so is he.

The Tchula physician has filed a breach-of-contract lawsuit against Mississippi Medical Assurance Co., but it may be too late to make an impact before the mandatory closure date. Filed Dec. 8 in Holmes County Chancery Court, the lawsuit charges MACM with unfairly refusing to renew his policy and failing in its obligation to cover state physicians. The suit further alleges the board of the state's sole malpractice insurer "has made it clear that they do not want me to treat poor chronic pain patients" and has wrongly denied coverage to other black physicians practicing in poor, primarily black communities.

MACM CEO Michael Houpt told Mark Taylor of Modern in an article posted Dec. 10 that race is never used as a basis for coverage decisions and was not a factor in Dr. Myers' case.

"We don't ask (race) on our applications because it isn't relevant," Houpt claimed.

Attempts to reach Houpt for a Nov. 30 Jackson Advocate article were unsuccessful and he has yet to respond to messages left for him. He would not discuss the case in detail with Taylor but said MACM's problems with Dr. Myers began when he took over operation of a pain management clinic in Tupelo formerly run by Dr. John McFadden whose license had been revoked.

Dr. Myers agrees that his problems are associated with his assumption of control of the Tupelo clinic, but disagrees that race "isn't relevant." He also says his problems with the insurer are far more complex than Houpt suggests. Myers contends his problems began when members of MACM's board took offense to the content of his testimony in a hearing before a state legislative committee investigating health care issues.

"Rep. Ed Blackmon (of Canton) asked me to testify," he said. "I told it like it is! What was I supposed to do, perjure myself?"

Myers does not believe the actions of another physician should have any effect on his ability to treat the doctor's former patients or on the state's failure to continue his malpractice coverage. In fact, he is an advocate for chronic pain sufferers and founder of the American Pain Institute, which lobbies for their rights and seeks appropriate treatments.

"Chronic pain patients need medical care too," Myers insists. "I am a family practitioner and I don't choose what illnesses I treat."

Dr. Myers works tirelessly with his patients and he's not even from Mississippi. He is a native of Milwaukee, from a middle-class family. He could live anywhere he chooses and practice for wealth.

Dr. Myers is indeed a rare and almost obsolete breed. He takes health care to the people by making housecalls to accommodate his patients who may be unable, too ill or without transportation to a doctor's office.

Ron Myers continues to follow through on a commitment he made to himself 25 years ago, after a 1975 meeting with the late revered Ruleville, Miss. civil rights fighter Fannie Lou Hamer motivated him to practice in the Delta.

"She said she could see that one day I'd be down in the Mississippi Delta, working with her people," Myers said. "That was what I wanted to do from then on."

Less than three years after graduating from medical school, Dr. Myers and his wife Sylvia moved to Mississippi in 1988 and dedicated their lives to caring for the poor. Their children are following suit.

Despite what he characterizes as a racial conspiracy against him orchestrated by the all-white board of Mississippi Medical Assurance Co., Dr. Myers vows he "won't go quietly." And he has not. He has taken his fight nationwide. Several of his patients and supporters joined Myers for a protest outside MACM's Ridgeland headquarters Friday, Dec. 10. That demonstration followed a similar protest in Atlanta during the American Medical Association's business meeting a week earlier.

Myers' plight is also drawing the attention of the national media. He is scheduled to be interviewed by beloved Mississippi native and "Good Morning America" co-host Robin Roberts Dec. 27.

His troubles escalated just as an article in the Sept. 13 issue of People magazine, entitled "Healing the Past," praised Myers for his work in one of the nation's most economically depressed areas.

"Dr. Ron Myers treats the Mississippi Delta's long legacy of poverty and racism -- one patient at a time," the article's subtitle reads.


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