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Mock Health Plan Launched at HMS

By Elizabeth S. Zuckerman

In a mock press conference this Wednesday at Harvard Medical School, Harvard and MIT professors, Nobel laureates and physicians formally announced the incorporation of their own health maintenance organization, HMO Black--a satirical jab at managed health care in the U.S.

"HMO Black is being started because health care is in crisis. Every crisis is opportunity and someone should take advantage of that opportunity," quipped the event's organizer Marc A. Abrahams '78.

"It's a very serious message but you can get it across perhaps more effectively by having some fun," said participant Dudley R. Herschbach, a Nobel laureate and Baird professor of science, in an interview. "It's a question do you weep or do you laugh? Sometimes if you get people laughing you can bring them around to focus on the questions a lot better."

Clad in lab coats, HMO Black's founders offered tongue-in-cheek testimonials to HMO Black.

"Managed health care is wonderful. I firmly believe this. I also firmly believe nicotine is not addictive," joked James L. Michel '76, head tutor of bio-chemical sciences at the College and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School (HMS).

"Our profession has an ancient watchword: 'First do no harm,'" said Herschbach at the conference. "With managed health care, we can do better. Henceforth let us always boldly act on the first law of New Medicine: 'First do nothing.'"

Also participating in the skit were James Michel's brother, Thomas, who is associate professor of Medicine and Associate Professor of Medicine Michelene Mathews Roth as well as MIT professor Jerome Lettvin. The mock conference featured a uniformed umpire--employed by HMO Black to arbitrate patient-practitioner disputes--and a videotaped testimonial from Lawrence professor of chemistry emeritus William N. Lipscomb, also a Nobel laureate.

Promising that their new organization will be "profitable to mankind or a portion thereof," HMO Black board members outlined their innovative health care options.

Subscribers who elect HMO Black's Permicare option will be kept alive "no matter what, whole or in parts," Abrahams said.

An EconoCare plan promises to help patients avoid financial burdens. When subscribers fall seriously ill, HMO Black will "automatically wave [their] fees, and [their] benefits," he said, to accompanying laughter from the audience.

The start-up organization also offers a Quick Service Plan with a "unique 'right to die' clause, easily and painlessly invoked at either your choice or ours whenever the burden of your illness becomes too great, or too expensive," according to HMO Black literature.

The nation's latest HMO was first proposed in an editorial in the May/June 1997 issue of Annals of Improbable Research, The Journal of Record for Inflated Research and Personalities (AIR)--a publication sometimes described as the MAD magazine of science. Abrahams is the editor of AIR which annually hosts the Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony, honoring people whose achievements "cannot or should not be reproduced."

According to Abrahams, the founders of HMO Black are all AIR affiliates but the concerns motivating the stunt run deeper.

"It seems like if you get several doctors together for more than five minutes, they talk about managed health care," he said.

"A lot of readers in [insurance] industries think HMO Black is wonderful," he said, explaining that groups involved with health care have responded positively to "anything that brings these issues up and gets people talking about them."

Concerns about managed health care are widespread, Thomas Michel said.

"This grows out of both an outrage and a need for a response at many levels to what I think is a growing decline in both the ability of patients to pursue care and doctors to provide care [because of] interventions in the form of restrictions on access and restrictions on information. I think that attack on many levels is required."

James Michel said he also hoped injecting humor into the debate would have some practical results.

"You take a story to its absurd extremes to begin to understand what the issues are," he said.

"Physicians do what's right but they're under pressure from a system that diverts attention from patient care and makes them act like insurance agents," he said.

According to James Michel, the managed health care system was "an easy target" because it already contains elements of the absurd.

Both the Michel brothers and Abrahams said HMO Black is just getting started and will continue announcing new health plans.

"We hope to dominate the health care industry by the year 2000," Abrahams said

Also participating in the skit were James Michel's brother, Thomas, who is associate professor of Medicine and Associate Professor of Medicine Michelene Mathews Roth as well as MIT professor Jerome Lettvin. The mock conference featured a uniformed umpire--employed by HMO Black to arbitrate patient-practitioner disputes--and a videotaped testimonial from Lawrence professor of chemistry emeritus William N. Lipscomb, also a Nobel laureate.

Promising that their new organization will be "profitable to mankind or a portion thereof," HMO Black board members outlined their innovative health care options.

Subscribers who elect HMO Black's Permicare option will be kept alive "no matter what, whole or in parts," Abrahams said.

An EconoCare plan promises to help patients avoid financial burdens. When subscribers fall seriously ill, HMO Black will "automatically wave [their] fees, and [their] benefits," he said, to accompanying laughter from the audience.

The start-up organization also offers a Quick Service Plan with a "unique 'right to die' clause, easily and painlessly invoked at either your choice or ours whenever the burden of your illness becomes too great, or too expensive," according to HMO Black literature.

The nation's latest HMO was first proposed in an editorial in the May/June 1997 issue of Annals of Improbable Research, The Journal of Record for Inflated Research and Personalities (AIR)--a publication sometimes described as the MAD magazine of science. Abrahams is the editor of AIR which annually hosts the Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony, honoring people whose achievements "cannot or should not be reproduced."

According to Abrahams, the founders of HMO Black are all AIR affiliates but the concerns motivating the stunt run deeper.

"It seems like if you get several doctors together for more than five minutes, they talk about managed health care," he said.

"A lot of readers in [insurance] industries think HMO Black is wonderful," he said, explaining that groups involved with health care have responded positively to "anything that brings these issues up and gets people talking about them."

Concerns about managed health care are widespread, Thomas Michel said.

"This grows out of both an outrage and a need for a response at many levels to what I think is a growing decline in both the ability of patients to pursue care and doctors to provide care [because of] interventions in the form of restrictions on access and restrictions on information. I think that attack on many levels is required."

James Michel said he also hoped injecting humor into the debate would have some practical results.

"You take a story to its absurd extremes to begin to understand what the issues are," he said.

"Physicians do what's right but they're under pressure from a system that diverts attention from patient care and makes them act like insurance agents," he said.

According to James Michel, the managed health care system was "an easy target" because it already contains elements of the absurd.

Both the Michel brothers and Abrahams said HMO Black is just getting started and will continue announcing new health plans.

"We hope to dominate the health care industry by the year 2000," Abrahams said

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