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an activist for the ages

Sat., July 2, 2011

George Rice is a retired doctor and a member of the state executive council for AARP. (Christopher Anderson)
George Rice is a retired doctor and a member of the state executive council for AARP. (Christopher Anderson)

Retired physician helps others through life’s stages

Dr. George Rice, 75, delivered more than 3,000 babies in his 26-year medical career in Spokane.

He helped the smallest among us start life and now, in his retirement, he’s looking out for our elders. He’s on the state executive council for AARP and also counsels seniors about Medicare’s prescription drug program.

In the same week that a team of U.S. senators announced a bipartisan initiative to raise the age of Medicare recipients, Rice sat down for a Wise Words interview.

• Portland, Ore., was my home. My father was a carpenter for a while and then he went into business with his father selling auto parts. My mother was a secretary for Portland General Electric.

We came from a fairly poor background. Even as a kid, if I wanted money, I’d pick beans or strawberries or raspberries. To get my first bicycle, I picked beans.

It was hot in the fields. But I had some cousins who did it with me and that helped. We developed contests: Who can pick the most? I don’t recall winning very often.

• An “a-hah” moment for me was in college. I started college at 17. I skipped a grade in grade school and that was a big mistake. It left a gap in my education that took considerable time to make up.

My mother encouraged me. She would tell me: “You know you can do it.” And I had teachers who told me I wasn’t living up to my potential. I loved math and a math teacher told me: “If you’d spend a little more time studying, you’d do very well.”

So finally I reassessed the situation and decided if I’m going to succeed, I’m going to have to work hard. I learned how to study. I said goodbye to the sorority-fraternity life and said if I’m going to make something of myself, I have to change my friends and my attitude. Then I made reasonably good grades.  

• What did I learn about survival from delivering 3,000 babies? Babies are very resilient. I kept my sense of awe for all those 26 years.

• The hardest (part of being a doctor) was dealing with the insurance companies. Here’s an example: I was here at home. It was 6:30 in the morning. I’m in the shower. The phone rings. Out of the shower I jump.

Here’s someone saying, “I understand you have Mrs. Jones on the schedule for a hysterectomy. We have reviewed the case and we don’t think she really needs the hysterectomy.”

I said, “Where are you located?” He said: “I’m Dr. Blah-Blah-Blah, and I’m in New York.” I said. “Do you realize there’s a time difference between New York and Spokane? I need those records in front of me. So I’ll call you once I get to the office.”

It was frustrating. It was interfering with the decision made between you and your patient.

• I retired in 1997. I’d been active politically for quite a while. I had worked on the First Steps program in the 1980s. I was president of the Washington State Obstetrical Association, and we were seeing more and more women showing up in the emergency rooms with no prenatal care. It was disturbing.

So we formed a committee of everybody who had anything to do with prenatal care. In 1989, the First Steps program passed in the Legislature. To get legislation passed, you have to have a lot of people supporting you to be able to go to the Legislature and say we represent all these groups, and then legislators will listen to you.

That’s where AARP comes in. They are representing about 38 million seniors. So when we walk in, we hope we get the attention of legislators.

• Retirement advice? Take a deep breath. Relax. Give yourself about a year. Do things you’ve always wanted to do and never had time for. We jumped in our boat and went up the Inland Passage of Alaska. It was a three-and-a-half month adventure. It had been a five-year dream. It more than lived up to our expectations.

• AARP is working on Medicare and Social Security. How long will Social Security last? We’re hoping forever. It’s a wonderful program designed to assist people in retirement.

We’re doing everything we can to protect the program. Protecting the program doesn’t mean it shouldn’t change some. It needs some tinkering. Near as we can tell, the program should last until 2036. But it needs some adjustment. You might change the age it can kick in.

AARP’s position is here you’ve contributed to (Social Security) all these years and you deserve it back. It shouldn’t be people’s retirement program. They should save, too. But unfortunately for a lot of people, this is their retirement.

  • Medicare was started in 1965. It’s a health insurance program for people 65 and older. They needed insurance and couldn’t get it because insurance companies weren’t wild about selling it to them. As you get older, you have more infirmities, and your chance of having a health problem are much higher, so insurance companies weren’t wild about providing it.

Medicare is a mandated program. I want to underline that. A lot of people when they talk about the Affordable Health Care Act worry that they want to mandate it. I say, “Well they already mandate Medicare and two thirds of seniors like Medicare.” AARP’s polls show it’s higher than that – in the 70 percent range.

People use the word “entitlement.” I don’t like that word. I like the word “assistance” because we are assisting people as they get older with medical care.

  • Should older people start protesting? Sure. I think it would get attention. What would a senior protest look like? It would be a very peaceful demonstration. We’re walking, not running or jogging. Perhaps we’re not even yelling, but we’re waving signs and they are red, white and blue, because we love our country.

• You don’t know how long you’ll be here. Live every darn day to its fullest. The more you do, the more you are protecting the two things you want to protect: your physical and mental health.

• I feel a whole lot better if I am helping other people, because you are thinking outside yourself.

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