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UW-Madison medical student invited to White House for health care reform forum

March 6, 2009

Last December, when Siavash Sarlati responded to President-elect Barack Obama’s national challenge and organized an informal health care reform discussion group in his father’s Milwaukee home, he never dreamed it would turn into a trip to the White House.

But that’s where the University of Wisconsin–Madison medical student found himself on March 5. Only Sarlati and six others among the 9,000 “hosts” who had organized groups that gathered over the holidays to hash out answers to questions posed by Obama’s team were summoned to Washington for the health care reform forum.

The seven “everyday people” joined lawmakers, business leaders, heads of national organizations, physicians and other stakeholders who also were on hand for the afternoon meeting, billed by the White House as the “first step” toward health reform.

“Being there was amazing,” says Sarlati. The Iranian-born 24-year-old who grew up in Milwaukee may have found the experience even more meaningful than most people would have — only two years ago did he become a U.S. citizen. He cast his first vote in a national election (for Obama) in November.

Travis Ulerick, a host from Dublin, Ind., began the program by telling the packed room how the discussion groups had worked, and then naming Sarlati and the other hosts. They were seated in the first row, directly in front of the podium, where the president made his opening remarks.

“I was impressed by the president’s strong words,” says Sarlati. Stating that the time has finally come for health care reform to occur, he pledged to make it happen by the end of the year.

After his opening remarks, as people moved to breakout sessions, Obama shook hands with Sarlati and the other hosts and thanked them for the work they had done with their discussion groups.

The 16-person group Sarlati had pulled together, with the help of UW–Madison graduate student Jon Dickman, included M. Eugene Pruitt, an internist who has worked in Milwaukee’s inner city for more than 30 years; two high school seniors; a few UW–Madison undergraduates; and friends and neighbors of a variety of ages and occupations.

The group’s submission can be seen here.

At the forum, Sarlati attended the breakout session led by Valerie Jarrett and Zeke Emanuel that included Sen. Chris Dodd, Rep. Steny Hoyer, and representatives of the National Association of Manufacturers, the Alliance for Retired Americans, Pfizer and others. They engaged in a free-flowing discussion, with good ideas coming from Democrats and Republicans alike, says Sarlati.

“I was surprised by how cordial everyone was to each other,” he says. “There was a feeling of cooperation and bipartisanship that doesn’t often come through in all the rhetoric we hear in the media.”

Before the concluding session began, an ailing Sen. Ted Kennedy entered the room to offer words of encouragement.

“We gave him a standing ovation,” says Sarlati.

Summarizing the event, Obama, using staff reports from each of the five breakout groups, read some of the more notable comments before asking for final questions.

“I had prepared questions, but didn’t have a chance to be involved in the discussion in our session or to speak up at the end,” says a slightly disappointed Sarlati.

Nevertheless, the second-year medical student was able to engage Obama in a brief exchange right after the close of the meeting,

“I told him I’m interested in going into primary care medicine, but I’ll have a six-digit debt by the time I graduate,” he says. “President Obama said they’d have to figure out a way to fix that.”