Dr. Robert S. Berry, a local physician who was a voice in the national debate about health care reform, died Monday.
Berry was a pioneer in the movement of primary care clinics, opening the PATMOS EmergiClinic in Greeneville in 2001 to provide medical service to individuals without health insurance or high deductibles, the first and only insurance-free, fee-for-service practice in Northeast Tennessee.
The clinic had evolved over the past several months into DirectMD of Greeneville. Direct MD follows the direct primary care model in which a patient pays the physician’s office directly monthly or yearly to receive comprehensive primary medical care.
With his experience in operating the PATMOS Clinic, Berry expressed his concerns about the current health care system and shared the benefits he saw in the insurance-free, fee-for-service model not only locally but with national audiences, having testified before a Congressional committee and as the focus of a Wall Street Journal front page article. At the time the clinic was opened, it was taboo to talk about prices, and Berry’s desire was to provide fair prices.
At the PATMOS clinic, charges were set for an office visit or other services. If a patient needed services or care he could not provide, such as testing or a surgical procedure, Berry sought out the most affordable options for his patients.
One of those patients, Lela Ricker, described Berry as an “angel” for the community.
“There is so much that man has done for so many,” she said of the physician. “He was just a Godsend. There is not enough words to say about the man we have lost. What he has done for our community and county goes far beyond measure and can’t be put into words.”
Ricker said Berry saw her when others doctors would not after her medical records were lost and she credits him with keeping her from serious illness. The doctor also helped her nephew find an affordable option for a C-T scan he needed, she said.
She hopes someone will step up and keep the clinic open and continue Berry’s work to find a better way to help people who are uninsured, but Berry’s shoes will be difficult to fill as he truly cared for his patients and loved what he did every day, she said.
“He was in it for the heart, not finance,” she said. “I remember that he once told me that God had provided him a modest home, a modest car and a modest way to care for family and that was okay, as the love for the job was more important.”
The number of calls and texts to his wife, Blair, who also worked at the clinic, show the impact Berry had.
“The love in this Greene County community for Robert is greatly evident by the outpouring of calls and texts from friends and family to Blair, his beloved wife,” said Lori Ann Sparks, artistic director of Central Ballet Theatre and owner/founder of Central Ballet and a friend of the Berrys.
Blair Berry said her husband’s greatest legacy was his relationship with his patients.
“They always felt like he took time to listen and care deeply about them,” she said.
TESTIMONY BEFORE CONGRESS
In 2004, Berry testified before a Joint Economic Committee of Congress in which he described how he began the PATMOS clinic and how cash-only clinics can reduce costs through lower overhead without the bureaucracy surrounding the current health care system .
“In January 2001, I left emergency room medicine to start a clinic primarily for the uninsured of my community as an attempt to flesh out in my own life an answer to the age-old question, ‘Who is my neighbor?’ Of course, I don’t refuse other patients willing to do ‘Payment At The Moment Of Service.’ In fact, because this seemed to be the unifying theme of our practice, I chose its acronym PATMOS as the name for the clinic,” Berry told the committee.
The PATMOS name was also a reference to the island of Patmos where the apostle John was exiled as he wanted to provide service for those who had been exiled from the health care industry.
As an emergency physician, Berry told the committee how he saw many of the uninsured seek medical care there as a last resort. However, he said, they were not people who were on the margins of society as some health care experts described them.
“In our community, they are farmers, construction workers, stone masons, Hispanics, Mennonite families, beauticians, cleaning ladies, small business owners and their employees – hard working folk who pay their bills,” Berry said. “They told me they didn’t have the time to wait at government clinics and did not like the quality of care they received there. They urged me to start a practice and promised that they would come see me if I did.”
As both board certified in internal medicine and formerly board certified in emergency medicine, Berry was able to treat in his office many medical problems that most other primary care providers refer to the emergency room such as suturing significant wounds, removing rust rings from the eye, performing lumbar punctures and providing intravenous therapy for dehydration.
RECOGNITION AND AWARDS
Berry was also featured in national print and television news. In November 2003, Berry and PATMOS clinic were featured in a front page article in the Wall Street Journal focusing on pay-for-service model.
He shared his experiences a few years later on two national news programs. A 2007 ABC-TV 20/20 program titled “Sick in America: Whose Body Is It, Anyway?” featured Berry. About two months later, he was interviewed by television journalist Geraldo Rivera on his Fox News Channel series, “Geraldo At Large.”
Also in 2007, Berry was recognized in an editorial appearing in World magazine, a Christian news weekly. Joel Belz, the magazine’s founder, wrote in the Jan. 20 issue, “Dr. Berry likes to point out that a typical bill is roughly equivalent to what a patient would pay for a lube or brake job on his or her car. His rates tend to be about one-third to one-half what patients would pay if they were using typical health insurance programs.”
In 2006, Berry was honored by Consumers for Health Care Choices as its “Pioneer in Medical Practice.” The national organization said the award recognized Berry for “setting a model for insurance-free medicine and enabling families to take greater control over their own health-care decisions.”
He was also honored as a “Health Care Hero” at the 2003 Tri-Cities Health Care Heroes Awards celebration banquet, sponsored by King Pharmaceuticals and Monarch Pharmaceuticals and hosted by the Business Journal. Berry was presented the “Cup of Kindness” award for his work at the PATMOS clinic to help make medical services more affordable and available for those who may otherwise fall through the cracks of the health care system.