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Surprise Classroom Visit by Former President Bill Clinton Wows Students

February 21, 2012
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Students took their seats in the School’s Storer Auditorium as they typically do every Monday for President Donna E. Shalala’s class on the U.S. Health Care Crisis and waited for the lecture to begin.

The topic of discussion on this day would be the difference between Medicare and Medicaid and how many people put off seeing a physician because of rising health care costs.

It wouldn’t be Shalala who delivered the lesson, but her former boss.

Sitting next to UM President Donna E. Shalala, President Bill Clinton answers questions from students in her class on the U.S. Health Care Crisis: The Politics of Health Care Reform.

On a Presidents' Day the students will never forget, former President Bill Clinton—whose administration was responsible for a number of health care achievements, from the Family and Medical Leave Act to dramatic improvements in public health—replaced Shalala as teacher for a day, lecturing to her students on a variety of health care-related issues.

Clinton noted that in 1992, when his administration attempted health care reform, the United States was spending 14 percent of its gross domestic product on health care. “Today, it’s 17 percent,” said Clinton, wearing bright yellow golf shoes and a polo shirt after a day on the links. “We’re the only country in the world with a for-profit health system with no cost controls.”

The 42nd president of the United States, Clinton made his comments while seated in a chair next to Shalala, who served as Clinton’s secretary of health and human services. He entered through a side-stage door, receiving a standing ovation from the class of about 300 students, all of whom had no idea he would show up.

“Surprised, really excited and I couldn’t believe that the former president was actually in our class,” said Shannon Nurse, a junior majoring in accounting at the School of Business, in describing her reaction to Clinton’s entrance.

The class erupted in applause when Clinton praised Shalala for her service. Junior Stephanie Feit, an accounting and finance major at the School of Business, believes it was Clinton’s high regard for Shalala that brought students this opportunity.

“It showed me the importance of networking and developing and keeping relationships throughout your career, said Feit. “He was willing to come visit our class because he thought so highly of [President Shalala].”

Students had no idea that President Clinton would be a guest lecturer in their class. But when he stepped onto the Storer Auditorium stage, they responded with a standing ovation.

Students not only got the opportunity to hear Clinton speak but were also allowed to ask questions.

When asked by one student how he would respond to physicians who take losses by accepting Medicare and Medicaid, Clinton said doctors’ net incomes could rise again if their paperwork could be decreased, noting that paperwork for many health care providers has tripled over the past few years.

He also addressed whether malpractice reform is needed, saying that the “evidence is not clear” on whether it is a significant driver of health care costs. “But it’s a serious problem in certain areas,” he said, singling out obstetrics and gynecology.

“I was really impressed by how knowledgeable he was about so many different topics,” said Nurse. “He had statistics and kept going from topic to topic, and was really well-informed about everything he was talking about.”

“I feel really, really privileged,” said Feit of the opportunity to learn more about the health care crisis from someone like Clinton. “It doesn’t get any more real than having a conversation like that.”

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