Tuesday, January 27, 2015

EDITORIAL >> Honoring ‘The Boss’

The closing of Arkansas Funeral Care in Jacksonville, where more than 30 bodies piled up while awaiting a decent burial or cremation, overshadowed the news last week that Dr. Thomas Wortham, a much-loved local physician, had passed away at the age of 88.

The ghoulish images of neglect at the funeral home contrasts with Dr. Wortham’s dedication to treating his patients for over six decades. He became a physician in 1953 and worked in Jacksonville for 43 years, from 1956 to 1999. He healed the sick, delivered babies, performed surgeries, made house calls and found time to establish Rebsamen hospital in 1962.

Dr. Wortham, an unassuming physician who was affectionately called “The Boss,” later taught for 13 years at UAMS, training young doctors who established medical practices across the state.

A native of Magnolia, Dr. Wortham was a veteran of the Second World War — one of the last surviving members of the Greatest Generation. He was only 17 when he joined the Navy. His ship was headed for Japan in the summer of 1945 when it turned back after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August.

When he was discharged in 1946, he hitchhiked up to Fayetteville, graduating with the help of the GI Bill.

Receiving his medical degree from UAMS at the age of 26 — 62 years ago — Dr. Wortham did his residency in St. Louis and moved back to Arkansas three years later.

He and his wife, Betty Jean, moved to Jacksonville in 1956, right after the Little Rock Air Force Base opened. Other physicians who established practices here included Drs. Jan Crow, Albert Johnson, J.W. Durham, Joseph Calhoun and others. They were small-town physicians with a huge desire to heal and serve.

Retiring from medicine in 2013, Dr. Wortham died a couple of years later in hospice under the care of one of his former students.

“He loved what he did,” his daughter Jan said of Dr. Wortham after he passed away. “He loved Arkansas. He said you had to talk Arkie to your patients so they could understand you.”

Dr. Wortham’s funeral was Saturday. He’s interred next to his wife at Chapel Hill Memorial Park in Jacksonville.

But the challenge of delivering quality health care remains. Lesser lights than Dr. Wortham would rather see the Jacksonville hospital close than support health insurance from Medicaid.

Fortunately, Asa Hutchinson, our new governor, announced last week that, for at least two more years, he wants to continue the private option, the Medicaid program that provides health insurance to the working poor.

The program’s future remains uncertain. We’d like to think that Dr. Wortham, like other physicians we know, would have favored its continuation. The program is helping small hospitals stay alive with millions of dollars in new funding from Medicaid.

There are those who don’t care about their local hospitals staying open and want to kill the program, even if it means turning back hundreds of millions of dollars in additional health-care funding for hospitals, clinics and doctors. Republican governors across the country, like Gov. Hutchinson, have come around and announced their support of Medicaid expansion.

Republican Gov. John Kasich of Ohio told a group of Montana Republicans last week that they should accept the program. “I gotta tell you, turning down your money back to Montana on an ideological basis, when people can lose their lives because they get no help, doesn’t make a lot of sense to me,” he said.

The federal government pays the entire cost of the private option. The state will have to assume 5 percent of the cost in two years and 10 percent in 2020. A 90-10 match is a bargain. Former Gov. Huckabee’s ArKids program has a 70-30 match. So which is the better bargain?

Let’s honor Dr. Wortham’s legacy by preserving Medicaid expansion and promote better health care for all Arkansans and keep our hospitals open.