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Nader's Medical Raider Diagnoses the U.S. Health Care System: 'Too Many People Make Too Much Money'

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A sign tacked up in his office reads “Populus Lamdudum Defutatus Est,” which roughly translates to “The people have been getting screwed long enough.” He flatly charges that “one of the leading causes of death and disease in this country is the health care system.” And what does he think is to blame? “There are too many people making too much money. Period.”

Dr. Sidney Wolfe, 41, is an angry man (though good-humored in person), who heads the Ralph Nader-subsidized Health Research Group. For seven years HRG has berated doctors, drug companies, regulatory agencies and private industry in its campaign against commonplace dangers to health. They include food additives, unsafe drugs, unnecessary surgery and hazards on the job.

Now Wolfe has launched a new crusade against Darvon, a prescription painkiller that he calls “legalized dope.” He says it causes more deaths by overdose than either heroin or morphine. HRG also recently published a book calling oral medication for diabetics dangerous and ineffective. And last month Wolfe attacked President Carter’s role in the battle against smoking as “irresponsible” because of his commitment to the tobacco industry. “Successful wars need the full support of the commander-in-chief,” Wolfe says. “The President is on the wrong side.”

Like his patron, Nader, Wolfe seems no more swayed by praise than by criticism. When HEW Secretary Joseph Califano said of Wolfe last fall, “I think he’s a very important and thoughtful individual who is dedicated to the public interest,” Wolfe shrugged. “It’s a nice compliment, for sure,” he says, “but a lot of what I do should be taken care of through regular channels rather than coming from the outside.”

Wolfe collects a salary of only $25,000 so he feels free to be caustic on the subject of medical greed. “It causes unnecessary operations,” he says, “not to mention a certain number of deaths and injuries.” He doesn’t spare the government either. “The 1976 swine flu program was dumb,” he says. “There wasn’t any disease at all and the program cost between half a billion and a billion dollars.”

Such bluntness, plus lobbying, litigation and petitioning have been HRG’s chief weapons. After the group’s vigorous campaign last year against DES, a drug once given to prevent miscarriage, Califano issued a dramatic warning about its use. “I don’t believe the doctors who continued to prescribe it were evil,” Wolfe says. “They were foolish to think their own experience meant more than controlled studies that showed the drug didn’t work and was a carcinogen.” Whether by coincidence or not, federal officials are now also studying restrictions on Darvon.

HRG has, of course, inspired virulent reaction in the medical establishment. “[Wolfe’s] main problem is an excess of zealotry,” says one drug industry spokesman. “He tends to exploit every negative aspect of drug therapy to scare the consumer.”

Wolfe’s zealotry was nurtured by his parents, a factory inspector for the Labor Department and a poverty area high school teacher in Cleveland. At 19, while working with hydrofluoric acid in a chemical plant to earn college money, he had his first encounter with hazards at work. “The acid is used to etch glass,” he recalls. “It also etches skin. I had burns on my skin and even my glasses.” Later at Western Reserve University medical school he studied under Dr. Benjamin Spock and worked in family clinics. “It was eye-opening,” says Wolfe, “to see people who didn’t have enough money to eat or clothe themselves.”

He met Nader at a 1968 consumer affairs convention but not until 1971, when he was a researcher at the National Institutes of Health, did Wolfe decide to become a full-time health advocate. While at NIH he discovered that a contamination problem with one drug company’s intravenous fluid was being ignored. Wolfe and Nader teamed up to send a complaint to the FDA. Within 48 hours, that agency ordered recall—and Wolfe was on his way to setting up HRG.

Wolfe assiduously practices what he preaches: He walks to work, doesn’t smoke and belongs to a prepaid health care program. He and his second wife, Suzanne Goldberg, 39, a psychotherapist, live in a townhouse in a racially mixed neighborhood. They were college sweethearts at Cornell who got together again after their first marriages broke up.

At HRG Wolfe’s latest satisfaction is exempting certain kinds of medical research—an investigation of birth control pills, for example—from Federal Office of Management and Budget clearance. He had earlier accused the agency of “preventing prevention” through bureaucratic delays. “We can cause changes to be made that will improve people’s health,” says Wolfe. “What more can any physician ask?”