Local | Mind, Body & Spirit

Bike trekking UA doctor seeks views on Obamacare

Tucsonan Paul Gordon, M.D., talks about the Affordable Care Act with a café patron in Kalamazoo, Mich. (Courtesy Paul Gordon)

University of Arizona College of Medicine professor Paul Gordon, MD, MPH, is living a dream he’s held onto for 40 years. An avid cyclist since high school, Gordon has always wanted to bike across the continental United States. On April 22, his dream came to life when he put bicycle wheels to the road in Washington, D.C., and started a cross-country journey to Seattle. Riding on what he’s billed as “The Bike Listening Tour,” Gordon is spending three months cycling across the northern section of the United States, stopping in small towns daily where he is on a mission to listen.

Gordon, 61, a professor of family medicine at the UA since 1989, was on a backpacking vacation a year ago in the Grand Canyon with his pediatrician wife, Eve Shapiro, and their adult children, Dan and Miriam, when he came up with a way to synthesize his professional obligations and his cycling dream. Gordon envisioned taking a sabbatical from his medical practice and university teaching duties in order to research Americans’ views on health care policy while making the cross-country tour he’s always wanted to do.

The mandates of the Affordable Care Act (or “Obamacare”) require all Americans to have health insurance. Gordon imagined that the impact of the recent policy changes would give people plenty to talk about. He says that he will not be educating people about the law or correcting their interpretations of it. He is only reaching out to regular folks in rural America to give them a voice in an area of public policy where traditionally they have had limited input.

Gordon was drawn to medicine while in high school. After earning his bachelor’s degree from Brown University in 1978, he spent a year in VISTA Corps (Volunteers in Service to America — the domestic counterpart of the Peace Corps program, now  AmeriCorps VISTA), where he was a community organizer in New York City. In 1979 he began medical studies in Manhattan at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine (renamed the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in 2012). After completing his family practice residency in Rochester, N.Y., he moved to Tucson with his young family in 1986. He and Eve happily continue to call Tucson home.

When the Arizona Jewish Post reached Gordon by phone in early May, he was stopped for the night in Coldwater, Mich. “It was a really great day today,” he said. “I did 57 miles through beautiful country and it wasn’t cold or rainy. I’m really enjoying seeing this country and I feel privileged to be on this tour.”

Gordon chuckles when asked about the strategic planning for his cross-country adventure. “There is not much planning involved,” he says, “except that I try to map out the safest and most scenic route between towns. I decided against cycling through the South as it would be too hot and ruled out riding through the central part of the country as it is too sparsely populated.” Hence, the decision to travel the rural roads of the northern U.S.  “We stop in very small towns,” he says, the “we” being friends, colleagues and family members who ride along with Gordon at different intervals along his route. “As there generally is only one café in these small towns, that’s the community gathering spot where I head to each day. I let people know that I’m riding my bike across the country and want to learn how they feel about Obamacare,” he explains. And people have been willing to share their thoughts candidly with him.

“What has been overwhelmingly obvious,” Gordon says of the feedback he’s getting, “is that there’s a lot of discontent and misinformation regarding health care policy. But what’s been so surprising is how well and warmly I’ve been welcomed.”

Comments so far include: “Obamacare didn’t go far enough,” “We struggled to find the ‘Affordable’ in the Affordable Care Act,” “It’s good that now people don’t have to face bankruptcy due to a medical problem,” “Insurance companies are taking advantage and it’s the fault of Obamacare.”

This month, first year UA medical student Laurel Gray will catch up to The Bike Listening Tour in Minnesota. Gordon was looking forward to Gray joining him as she has a special expertise in community outreach related to health care policy. Gray, who earned her undergraduate degree in global health, with a focus on medical anthropology from Arizona State University in 2013, learned about health-care disparities when she worked as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer helping immigrants and asylum seekers obtain medical treatment at an emergency shelter in Austin, Texas.

Gordon, a former chairman of the department of family and community medicine at the UA College of Medicine, explains that he is very attentive to health care policy and the politics that surround it. “I understand health care as a right and not a privilege,” he says, “and I feel that it is my duty, my way of practicing tikkun olam (repair of the world) to help my students and my patients understand health care policy as it has such a huge impact on our lives.”

Gordon is blogging about his experiences and the feedback he’s receiving about Obamacare at bikelisteningtour.wordpress.com.

Renee Claire is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson.