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Norwich - To Dr. John Foley, being a physician these days feels a lot like riding in a car careening along a winding mountain road.
"It can head for the cliff, or it can go to a really great place," said Foley, cardiologist and medical director of the Congestive Heart Failure & Wellness Program at The William W. Backus Hospital. "I don't necessarily trust that the car is going to be driven in the right direction, so I want to be part of it."
Foley, 50, has been a cardiologist for 13 years, attending medical school after a first career as a nurse. For most of his years as a doctor, he has taken on leadership roles in the county and state medical societies. Now, between keeping up with his patients at two practices, Cardiology Associates in Norwich and Yale Congestive Heart Failure in New Haven, a Yale-New Haven Hospital affiliate, he's preparing to take on the top spot in the state medical society. He delivered a speech Friday to a meeting of the state medical society at the Mystic Marriott. Today he officially will be inducted as the group's president.
"More and more authority is being taken away from doctors, and that's not good for the patients," Foley said Thursday, in between patients in the busy Norwich practice he shares with seven other cardiologists. "My primary objective is to defend the practice of medicine. I didn't want to be someone who just complained, I wanted to do something about it."
Foley, who lives in Waterford with his wife, Marie Kenny, and their three children, is becoming an advocate for his fellow doctors at a time when health care is undergoing pressure to reduce costs and expand access. He wants to make sure physicians have a strong voice in how reforms are carried out.
"We want to keep physicians happy and staying in practice," he said, referring to local physicians who've left the profession recently due to financial stresses, malpractice claims and other causes. "Doctors are working longer and a lot harder than they did a few years ago for less compensation."
As president, he will represent the state's physicians before the legislature, and anticipates it will be a demanding responsibility. He listed five key issues he plans to focus on. The first is tort reform, which would mean lobbying in favor of a malpractice reform legislation he hopes will be introduced and against attempts to water down a "certificate of merit" requirement that is a kind of pre-trial test of malpractice cases.
He also wants to keep attention focused on the need to fix the sustainable growth rate formula for Medicare rates, and to raise Medicaid reimbursement rates so they're closer to Medicare rates. Currently, he said, the rates are so low - about 20 percent of what a physician would be paid for the same service under Medicare - that many physicians opt not to take Medicaid patients, increasing the burden on those who do. He also plans to lobby on behalf of reforming antitrust laws that he said place unnecessary constraints on physicians.
"I'll get involved with anything that's health care related," he said.
The fifth issue is a longstanding personal interest for him and his wife. The couple volunteers with groups that work against domestic violence. Now, Foley would like to get the medical society involved in supporting programs of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and re-emphasizing physicians' roles in directing patients who are victims into assistance programs.
He also anticipates being involved in monitoring the state's creation of the health insurance exchange as the federal Affordable Care Act is implemented. Foley said he is supportive of the work of an affiliated group, the Connecticut State Medical Society Independent Practice Association, in creating a new nonprofit insurance offering, HealthyCT.
"I'm excited about it," he said. "I'm hopeful that it will be an insurance product that competes with what's in the market and is high quality."
Taking on the role of president of the medical society might seem like an unwieldy challenge for a physician with an already full schedule. Foley, however, believes it's necessary that he and other doctors make the time to get involved.
His message to fellow physicians is this: "If not us, then who? If not now, then when?"