Dr. Ben Carson is known for blazing trails in the neurological field — including breakthrough work separating conjoined twins. Now he's making waves for his political views. Host Michel Martin talks with Carson about the current state of health care in America and his upcoming speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're going to start off the week by meeting people who are involved with some of this country's more challenging debates around health care. In a few minutes, we'll meet the first person in this country to try out a new method for prostate cancer treatment. The treatment worked and now he's hoping his experience would persuade other skeptics, especially other African-Americans to participate in clinical trials.
But first we want to speak with a man of medicine who is now making a splash in the political arena. You might know Dr. Benjamin Carson as one of the preeminent neurosurgeons in the world. He was the first man to successfully separate twins who were born joined at the head. You might know him from his remarkable life story that inspired a movie starring Cuba Gooding, Jr. Or you might know him from his interview on this program after he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
But lately, he's been getting a lot of attention for this speech that he gave at the National Prayer Breakfast last month.
(SOUNDBITE OF BREAKFAST SPEECH)
DR. BENJAMIN CARSON: It's very difficult to speak to a large group of people these days and not offend someone. I know people walk around with their feelings on their shoulders waiting for you to say something - ahh - did you hear that? And they can't hear anything else you say. The PC police are out in force at all times.
MARTIN: He went on to criticize President Obama's policies on everything from health care to taxes - all this while the president sat just a few steps away. After the speech, the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial titled "Ben Carson for President." The Atlantic called him a, quote, "new conservative folk hero." Now all eyes are on Dr. Carson for his next speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, which is this week.
And Dr. Carson took time from his busy schedule to speak with us about it. Dr. Carson, welcome back to the program. Thanks for joining us.
CARSON: Thank you. Good to be back.
MARTIN: Now your concerns about health care in this country, the health care system overall, how it's practiced, are not new. For example, you talked about these issues when you were on this program. Are you talking more about these issues or are more people listening now?
CARSON: Well, you know, I've been talking about it for a long time. If you go back and read my 1999 book called "The Big Picture," a lot in there about health care. I've been very concerned about how we do it. And I wouldn't characterize myself as criticizing the president. I've been talking about these things long before he was on the scene. So it's not so much a criticism of him as it is placing out there some other ideals about how we get this thing under control.
And, you know, we spend twice as much per capita on health care in this country as the next closest nation and yet we have tremendous access problems. And I believe there are some ways that we can do it which would provide very excellent access to everybody at substantially less cost.
MARTIN: Why do you think your speech at the National Prayer Breakfast got so much attention?
CARSON: Well, I think it resonated with a huge number of people. You know, I've gotten literally thousands of contacts from people across the country - and the most poignant ones being elderly people - who said I had given up on America and I was just waiting to die. And now they felt revived. And I think what I really talked about, again, was not a criticism of anything but just some stuff that makes sense, logical things that make sense.
People are starving for that coming out of Washington. And it's not a Democrat thing or a Republican thing. I think it's a politician thing.
MARTIN: I do want to talk more about the substance of some of your ideas, particularly for people who haven't had a chance to read some of your books. In fact, you talk a lot about your ideas about health care in your latest book "America the Beautiful: Rediscovering What Made This Nation Great."
But I want to spend just a couple more minutes talking about where you decided to make these comments, about the conservative syndicated columnist Cal Thomas, who's one of the organizers of the prayer breakfast, said that he felt your remarks was inappropriate for the occasion, that you turned a non-political occasion into a political occasion. And he said it's not about politically correct; it's about being rude.
And I've personally heard you speak about the importance of being courteous. He says you owe the president an apology. Do you think you do?
CARSON: I don't think so at all. In fact, I don't believe that expressing your opinion, regardless of who is there, is being rude. And it's a shame that we've reached a level in our country where we think that you don't have the right to put your opinion out there. And the setting, I think, is extraordinarily appropriate because we're talking about the health of our nation, not only the physical health of our nation but also the spiritual health of our nation.
MARTIN: Do you think that your race plays some role in the attention that is being gotten here? I mean, the fact is that you and the president are both highly achieving African-American men from humble beginnings, if I can put it that way, and that there's something delicious in that confrontation.
CARSON: I suspect that in some people's minds that probably did create a little tasty tidbit, particularly those individuals who tend to think that if you're black you have to think a certain way and you have to act a certain way, which I find really quite offensive.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Dr. Ben Carson. He's the director of pediatric neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. He's speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference later this week and he's getting a lot of attention for comments he made at the National Prayer Breakfast which was last month. Talk a little bit more, if you would, about - I know your interest in some of these issues goes beyond health care, but health care is, I think, the area that you know best.
What is it that you think - the particular nugget that you would want people to come away with? What you think would be better?
CARSON: Well, first of all, in order to have good health care you need a patient and you need a health care provider. Along has come the middle man to sort of facilitate the relationship and now the middleman has become the primary component with the patient and the health care provider at its beck and call. This is totally upside down, and anything that we do that enhances that middleman and decreases the doctor-patient relationship actually exacerbates the situation rather than making it better.
So what - the reason that I proposed health savings accounts for everybody starting at birth, is because you very quickly accumulate an amount of money that you can use for your interactions with those health care providers. Also, you develop a very good doctor-patient relationship and also because you now have some responsibility for that account, you're going to be looking for good bargains. Other people are going to be making sure that they provide good bargains. You bring the whole health care system into the free market. And that's going to help to control cost as well.
MARTIN: You also talk, though, about the need for some sort of catastrophic insurance to address truly catastrophic situations.
MARTIN: Is that getting an equal amount of attention?
CARSON: Well, no one's really asking me about that. I appreciate you asking about it. Yes, that obviously does have to be a component of the plan. And that is the place where you can bring the government and where you can bring Medicare or Medicaid in. We can work out a system whereby that's done for considerably less money than we're spending now. Because you're taking the middleman out of the equation for 80 percent of the medical encounters.
MARTIN: I noted that you are talking with the Conservative Political Action Committee next week, CPAC which is, well, in Washington circles it's a big deal. It's considered a platform for people with political aspirations. Do you consider yourself a conservative?
CARSON: I consider myself a logical person and, you know, a lot of people try to categorize me in one way or another. You know, there are some of the things that I say that probably would be considered very much non-conservative. For instance, I think that the medical insurance industry needs to be reformed dramatically because we've put them in an untenable situation.
They make money by denying people care. That's an inherent conflict of interest. That situation needs to be addressed. Some people would say that's not a conservative way of thinking. But I don't think really conservative or liberal; I think what makes sense? What's going to help the American people? What's going to give them what they need? Not only in health care but in terms of jobs, in terms of education, in terms of a whole host of issues that, you know, I addressed in the most recent book, "America the Beautiful."
MARTIN: The Wall Street Journal editorial, as I mentioned, the title of it is "Ben Carson for President." We mentioned that CPAC has been a springboard for people who are aspiring to kind of a broader place in the public debate. Do you have aspirations for a career in public service? Do you have any intention of perhaps finding other platforms to discuss your ideas about policy?
CARSON: Certainly that has been pushed upon me many times in the past and there's no way I'm getting into the cesspool of special interest groups. Wouldn't do it anyway in the world. People say, well, why don't you run for Congress? You could get there very easily. Why would I want to run for Congress and continue to get tainted with all the things that people get tainted with as they come along the system.
I think perhaps a much better role would be to use my voice and to use my influence to help change the tone of this nation, to help us to realize that, you know, we're not enemies. A very wise man once said a house divided against itself cannot stand, and here we find ourselves in a situation where we're more divided than ever and we need to develop the kind of leadership that encourages people to work together, to join together, to utilize their strengths in order to improve our situation, not to continue to exacerbate it.
MARTIN: But on the question of the tone and the timing, could a reasonable person say, you know, the time for you to be heard on this issue was when healthcare reform was being debated, and that was not for a short amount of time. More broadly, one could argue, it's been debated for 40 years; narrowly, in this administration, one could argue, it was debated in the first two years of the administration.
I mean at this point could a reasonable not mean person say that this is a heckler's veto?
CARSON: Well, let me put it this way. During the healthcare debate, I was contacted by the administration to get my views and I was having quite a very decent conversation with the gentleman until he asked me what did I do for the president during the campaign, and I said that I'm an independent and that was the end of that conversation. Two months later I get another call. I guess they thought better of it and I was teaching a lesson.
I said I'm in the middle of teaching a lesson, can we talk in 40 minutes. The person was offended. I mean how could you possibly be doing anything more important than taking to the White House. That was the end of that conversation. You know, I talked to David Axelrod about that, and I tell him about those two conversations. He said, well, you know, we have some young people who perhaps don't exercise the best judgment and you shouldn't judge the whole administration on that basis.
I take him at his word that you shouldn't, but it's not that I haven't made an attempt to influence the direction of things.
MARTIN: That was Dr. Benjamin Carson. He's the director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital. His latest book - he's written many of them - is "America the Beautiful: Rediscovering What Made This Nation Great," and he was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to join us from member station WYPR in Baltimore. Dr. Carson, thanks for joining us.
CARSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.