A Presidents’ Day to Remember

Students get a surprise in their health care class

Students had no idea that President Clinton, wearing bright yellow golf shoes and a polo shirt after a day on the links, would be a guest lecturer in their class. They responded with a standing ovation.
Laptops, notebooks, and pens at the ready, 300 students took their seats in Storer Auditorium as they do each Monday, waiting for UM President Donna E. Shalala to begin her lecture for the class “U.S. Health Care Crisis: The Politics of Health Care Reform.” But today’s lesson—on the difference between Medicare and Medicaid and how rising health care costs cause many people to put off seeing a physician—wouldn’t be delivered by UM’s president, but her former boss.

On a Presidents’ Day the students will never forget, former President Bill Clinton—whose administration was responsible for a number of health care achievements, from the Family and Medical Leave Act to dramatic improvements in public health—replaced Shalala as teacher for a day.

Covering a variety of health care-related issues, Clinton noted that in 1992, when his administration attempted health care reform, the country was spending 14 percent of its gross domestic product on health care. “Today, it’s 17 percent,” he said. “We’re the only country in the world with a for-profit health system with no cost controls.”

The nation’s 42nd president made his comments while seated in a chair next to Shalala, who served as Clinton’s secretary of health and human services. He had entered through a side-stage door, receiving a standing ovation from students, who had no idea he would show up.

“My initial response was a combination of, ‘I can’t feel the right side of my body and my heart rate has never been higher,’” said Blake Yagman, describing the way he felt upon seeing Clinton. Yagman, a political science and history major and longtime Clinton admirer, said he wants to follow in his footsteps.

After the lecture, students were able to ask questions. One asked how Clinton would respond to physicians who take a financial loss when they accept Medicare and Medicaid. The former commander in chief said reducing paperwork, which has tripled in recent years for many health care providers, could improve their net income.

Clinton left the students with some advice. “Develop your minds so that you’re active and curious and soaring,” he said. “You need to be able to look at a newspaper and realize that a five-paragraph story at the bottom of an inside page may be more important to your well-being than a story on the front page. Become a sponge of curiosity.”