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Minneapolis doctor gives artists a health care option

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An artist-friendly physician in Northeast Minneapolis has opened a practice that's getting praised for addressing a gap in the health care system. 

A survey co-commissioned by St. Paul-based Springboard for the Arts found that Minnesota artists are twice as likely as the general public to be uninsured. 

Artists are often referred to as creative problem solvers. So are doctors. 

With Sam Willis, or Doctor Sam as he likes to be called, you get two in one. The 34-year-old physician is also a painter who matches a hipster look with a mild demeanor. And for the last two years Doctor Sam has been molding his own response to the crisis of both the underinsured and uninsured. 

"Looking at all that I thought 'well, how can I do this in a way that reduces costs for those people and creates an environment that reflects values,'" he said.

A big problem with the health care system according to Doctor Sam is that the costs, though enormous, are not clearly defined or understood. And, they're negotiated by three different entities, the insurance industry, doctors and patients, each with different interests and motives. Health care the Doctor Sam way largely removes insurance companies from the equation.

"This practice looks at really simplifying that transaction and making between the people who have the most interest in reducing costs and increasing quality, which I believe is the physician and the patient," he said.

Dr. Sam Willis
Dr. Sam Willis poses in his office/gallery in Northeast Minneapolis on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2009.
MPR Photo / Chris Roberts

Doctor Sam's patients are from communities who are often out priced by the health care system -- transgender people, the self-employed and artists. Folks with ongoing health concerns can become members of the practice for just $60 a month, and pay $36 per visit. Compare that to workers with comprehensive insurance who pay on average $400 to $600 a month. 

Doctor Sam's patients can also opt to forego membership and pay $100 per visit. Pre-existing conditions aren't a factor. Doctor Sam says health care providers and insurers assume patients can't figure out things like cost, efficiency and quality because they're too complex. 

"I believe that if the costs are transparent and made clear up front, that patients can recognize good quality and affordability," he said.

Doctor Sam handles routine visits and simple lab tests at his office. For patients with more complicated issues, he's painstakingly set up a network of like-minded physicians, specialists and even alternative medicine practitioners to refer to. 

He takes a somewhat unorthodox approach to break down walls between doctor and patient. His desk is situated so that he's the first person to greet people when they walk in the door, before ushering them into an examining room. So far, that's gotten a mixed reaction.

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"Some people get that and like it, and other people say to me, you really shouldn't be sitting there," he said. 

But the greatest expression of how Doctor Sam's values line up with who he serves is a space that directly adjoins the medical office called the Conduit Gallery, where artists' works are regularly displayed. 

With natural light streaming into its converted warehouse windows, and oversized photographic portraits on the wall, you feel like you should be grabbing a glass of wine and some cheese rather than having a stethoscope put to your chest. 

For artists like woodcarver Nathan Stanley, whose $10,000-deductible insurance policy kept him away from doctors, Doctor Sam's affordability is a draw.

"I spend $100 for a visit here," he said. "Wow, that's nothing."

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But it's Doctor Sam's sensibility that Stanley appreciates even more.

"He just understands the abstract mind and I can communicate with him," Stanley said.

In limited situations, even cash poor artists have an option with Doctor Sam. When Minneapolis photographer Michael Shapiro inquired about the practice, he was up front.

"I said 'you know I've got a lot more prints than I do money,' " he said." He said 'well I've been looking at your Web site, and I'd certainly like to have some of your prints.' "

Shapiro ended up exchanging a photograph for five visits with Doctor Sam. "For me that worked out really well," he said.

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Dr. Sam is building his practice slowly. He's pretty confident he can keep costs down, quality up and make a living. Dr. Sam's dual commitment to affordability and quality is what Laura Zabel said makes his practice unique, and a model. Zabel, the executive director of Springboard for the Arts, said we all know the nation is embroiled in a heated debate on health care reform.

"Meanwhile, quiet Doctor Sam is figuring out a way to fix it for these 500 people who will be his core membership," she said.

Probably the highest compliment you could pay Doctor Sam is to tell him he tackled health care reform like an artist would -- creatively.