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Abe Bergman has mixed pediatrics, 'political medicine,' to benefit kids for half a century

Abraham (Abe) Bergman, M.D., a respected pediatrician and pediatrics professor in Seattle for more than 50 years, had a second practice over all those years that he refers to as "political medicine," which frequently found him twisting arms of state and national lawmakers for kids-related issues. Now he has a new cause that is painfully close to him: to build new community facilities to house the mentally ill.

Bergman, who retired as chief of pediatrics at Seattle's Harborview Medical Center in 2002, is seeking to have the 2015 Legislature clear the way to include construction of facilities for mentally ill housing in the capital construction budget the lawmakers pass each biennium.

Dr. Abraham (Abe) Bergman 

Bergman, who practiced pediatrics at Children's Hospital for 20 years and Harborview for 30 in addition to teaching at the UW Medical School, thinks the time is right for his proposal for several reasons.

An obvious one is a State Supreme Court ruling last year making the practice of warehousing mentally ill patients in hospital emergency rooms due to a lack of available treatment space illegal.

That ruling dramatically complicated the processes in place in the state mental health system and forces the Legislature to confront the question of how to deal with the longstanding dilemma of the impact budget cuts have had on the availability of mental-health treatment space.

But a decision immediately after the ruling by the Medicare and Medicaid Services to allow Washington State to use Medicaid dollars to pay for services in what are officially called Institutes for Mental Diseases may be another boost to Bergman's campaign. That decision would allow qualified non-profits to provide services in the facilities that he would like to see built with state capital construction bonds.

He candidly admits his interest "has been piqued" by having a 19 year old, one of three children from the Russian Far East that he and his wife adopted in the late '90s and early 2000s, "who has been at the intersection of the criminal justice and mental health systems for the past two years."

"The problem is visible everywhere in society," Bergman said. "People who are psychotic are walking around on the streets. Jails are full of people with mental illness and there is no place, no supportive housing, where these people who are a danger to themselves and others can go."

 

Bergman points as a possible model to a long-standing program in Maryland that provides for capital grants to non-profits or county or municipal corporations for from $100,000 to $2 million per project to construct buildings to provide services to individuals with development disabilities, mental illness or addiction.

"I feel there's a glimmer of hope now for the Legislature to consider this because, after talking with several legislators, it seems possible partisan swords will be sheathed, partly because there are certain issues, like child welfare, that have always been exempt from partisanship and this may well be one," Bergman said.

"The neat thing about my proposal is that most construction costs can be covered by the sale of bonds (in the capital budget) and funds to operate the programs can come mostly from Medicaid," he added. "So it's not a budget breaker."

Bergman notes that his plan, now being considered by the House budget committee, doesn't necessarily need passage of a bill to implement, but rather could merely be inserted directly into the capital budget itself.

I've been watching Bergman, now 82, practice his "political medicine" for more than 40 years, since we first connected in 1973 after the death of our infant, Sarah, who was a victim of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

Bergman and another young physician, Bruce Beckwith, were, for nearly a decade, the first contacts for Seattle-area parents whose infants had died unexpectedly and unexplainedly from what was long referred to as "crib death."

It was on behalf of those lost infants and their grieving parents that Bergman had already successfully guided a national campaign that led to research efforts to explain the sudden deaths and changed thoughtless and heartless medical and law enforcement practices. And their national efforts gave what had merely been "crib death" an actual medical name.

It was about the same time, in the mid-'60s, that Bergman also provided a key assist to Washington's Sen. Warren Magnuson in getting Congress to amend the Flammable Fabrics Act to expand its coverage to include foam and other materials used in children's clothing.

But Bergman's activities on behalf of kids extend way beyond mere political activism. He has been engaged for more than a decade leading efforts to improve healthcare for foster children, a campaign that he says is beginning to bring results.

He's been an outspoken advocate of adoptions by retirees, particularly of special-needs children. He became an advocate of retiree adoptions after he and his wife adopted their three youngsters from the Russian Far East.

And another successful campaign of Bergman's on behalf of children with special needs was creation of the Seattle Children's PlayGarden, which he proudly points to as "the only facility of its kind in the country located in a public park."

Bergman was the founding board chair and a key advocate for the PlayGarden when it became a 501c3 in 2003 and the Seattle Parks Department offered the south end of Coleman Playfield as the site for a public-private development. He calls it "the most gratifying project I have ever been involved with."

The annual luncheon on behalf of the PlayGarden, which is described as "improving the lives of chldren with physical or mental disabilities by providing them with full access to a safe indoor/outdoor recreation space and offering programs that improve their potential," is March 27 at the Four Seasons at 12p. 

Bergman once described the rewards of his half century as a pediatrician as satisfying "the passions of my bleeding heart by practicing 'political medicine' on behalf of underserved kids." It's a passion that hasn't abated in his retirement years.  

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