Dr. William A. Petit Jr. is one of 35 newly elected legislators in the Connecticut General Assembly, but he’s probably the only one whose November victory made national news.
Petit became widely known as the sole survivor of the horrific 2007 Cheshire home invasion in which his wife and two daughters were murdered. He says some people wrongly believe all his views come from that experience.
In fact, Petit had a hand in public policy long before that, addressing legislators on medical issues as part of the Hartford County Medical Association – where he was once president – and the Connecticut State Medical Society. He spent three decades as an endocrinologist and served as medical director at the Joslin Diabetes Center at The Hospital of Central Connecticut.
Petit stopped practicing medicine after the murders and now leads the Petit Family Foundation, established in memory of his wife and daughters. It gives grants to many organizations, with a focus on those that help people affected by chronic illness or violence, or that promote education, particularly of women in the sciences.
He is now remarried and has a 3-year-old son. In November, Petit, a Republican, won the state House seat representing New Britain and Plainville, defeating longtime Rep. Betty Boukus, who died of cancer in December. He’s happy to go by “doc,” “representative,” or “Bill,” but said don’t call him “Mr. Petit” – that’s his dad.
He spoke with The Mirror last month about his new job as a legislator, changes in how doctors practice, diabetes, the federal health law, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s Second Chance Society criminal justice reform initiatives, victims’ rights, and the assumptions people have about him.
CTMIRROR: You’ve been in the Legislative Office Building before in more advocacy capacities. Now that you’re a legislator, what’s at the top of your agenda? What are the issues you’re looking to really work on?
PETIT: I really campaigned on the budget. I knocked on about 7,500 doors, and people’s biggest concern is the budget – be it balancing the budget, be it spending more, spending the money we have. I heard time and again people say, “In our own household, if we don’t have the money, we can’t spend it.” So that’s a priority.
Second is really to try to help grow jobs, the job engine. I came from a family that ran small businesses, going back to my grandfather with the A&P in the 1920s, and then my father and my brothers in business with convenience stores, package stores, florist shops, doughnut shops, video stores before they went out of vogue, et cetera.
So any things that’ll help small businesses, those are things I am most interested in.
CTMIRROR: What are some things from your family’s experiences in small business that you can see translating into policy?
PETIT: I think it’s probably regulations and fees. My mom was the bookkeeper, office manager, thrown into that role by default…dealing with the legion agencies, your milk license and your liquor license and your tobacco license, and…lottery. There’s lots of forms and things, so it’s not easy. So anything we can do to streamline regulations and fees for small business would go a long way.
When I went door to door, people complained about that in a general sense, and I would say contact me, contact your senator. I said contact the senators with a specific request, “here’s a regulation that doesn’t make sense,” because just sort of the blanket statement that “there’s too many” is not helpful. But if you tell us how it impacts you day-to-day and month-to-month and year-to-year, that’s important.
CTMIRROR: Are there particular issues in health care you’d like to play a role in, or changes that you see that you’re concerned about or you think should be addressed?
PETIT: I think Medicaid funding’s going to be a big issue, health care for those who can’t afford it.
I had proposed a bill over five years to phase out the hospital tax, because I just philosophically don’t think it made a lot of sense to tax institutions that are attempting to take care of us when we’re sick. I sort of understand the impetus to it. [Federal law allows states to collect money from hospitals and redistribute it to the industry. Giving the money back to hospitals allows the state to capture federal matching funds, although Connecticut now collects far more in taxes than it returns to hospitals, forgoing hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding.]
There’s sort of the philosophical approach to life, and then there’s the real approach. Philosophically, I thought, these are our tax dollars, and our legislators federally have made a decision that these are going to go for health care for the poor, and then we send it to the state, it seems to me, [it] should be used for health care for the poor. … But I understand we’ve had budget issues, so I understand people looking for money wherever they can and trying to hold things up so they’re not taking more money out of human services and other areas.
[As for the Affordable Care Act,] I’ve thought from the beginning that we needed to make improvements. Some of the positive things of Affordable Care I think we should keep. I think everyone’s in agreement with, to get insurance [for people] with pre-existing conditions is critical. Most of your readers who are over 40 will understand that. The people under 30, most of them don’t have pre-existing conditions so they don’t know what you’re talking about.
Kids are staying home later and later, college costs being what they are, so being able to insure kids until they’re 26 [is important].
Some sort of individual mandate, in that people have to have some skin in the game. Some people’s attitude I think was “I’ll show up at the ER, and they’ll have to take care of me.”
But obviously some things have happened, and I’m not completely sure how, but obviously premiums have gotten very high and deductibles have gotten very high, so it’s created an issue where if you have a $5,000 or $10,000 deductible, people forgo health care. So that’s an issue.
We can’t repeal the Affordable Care Act with nothing in the way. I’m in agreement with the AMA and the Connecticut State Medical Society on that. We can’t just pull the rug out from 10 or 15 or 20 or 30 million people without having some sort of plan in place. And I don’t think we need a total rebuild. We need to keep the things that work and try to work on solutions for the things that aren’t working well.
[As for health care costs] Part of it may be the realization that in America, we all may be driving the costs, you and I as consumers. “Well, I have this condition, I really think I should have a CT scan, my friends think I should have a CT scan.” Your doctor may say, “All the studies show without some sort of major head trauma you don’t meet this, this and this, you really don’t need one,” and people get pressed. …People press for more health care based on things they’ve seen on the Internet, and that tends to drive up the cost of health care, so we all have some personal responsibility.
And obviously it starts in another area, and that’s taking care of yourself. I can lose about 25 pounds, so I’ll blame myself first. I might cost the health care system less money if I lost 25 pounds. But we all need to have some skin in the game that way in terms of primary prevention. And I don’t think that’s something you can legislate really, but we can educate.
CTMIRROR: Chronic illness is another big driver. You’re an expert in one of the big ones, diabetes. Is that something where you see a role for policy?
PETIT: I think we were one of the first states, going back many years, when we pushed that diabetes education be covered.
I think that made sense, ’cause pay me now or pay me later. You educate people on what to do in terms of diet and exercise and appropriate therapies to try to avoid morbidity and mortality down the line.
The things that have happened in the course of my career – paying for diabetes education, paying for home monitoring, glucose monitoring – I think were critical in improving care for people with diabetes, allowing people to see their eye doctor, making that part of the plan.
You had now insurance companies chasing you and saying, “Hey, Petit, you got these 100 people and these 20 haven’t seen somebody [for an eye exam].” And most of the time it was, Petit had told those 20 to go and they hadn’t gone, but it was nice to actually get [reminded]. Instead of saying “You’re a pain in the butt, leave me alone,” I’d hand it to my nurse and say, “Mona, these 20 guys didn’t keep their appointments. Tell them they need to see their eye doctor,” so we would make 20 phone calls. And maybe we got five of them to go within a month, and five of them to go in another couple months, and 10 just never went because that’s sort of human nature. But that was helpful. So I think coverage for preventative and ongoing care, I think, was very helpful. And diabetes is probably one of the best examples of multifactorial chronic illness with prevention and treatment.
CTMIRROR: One thing I’ve heard a lot about in the last few years are the changes in medical practice, with fewer docs working on their own and more working in hospitals or large groups. What do you think about that, as someone who’s been in practice?
PETIT: I did both. I started in practice with another guy, had another partner, and did that for about half of my career. And then, although the last 10 years of my career people perceived me to be in private practice, I was actually owned by New Britain General, Hospital of Central Connecticut now, because we operated exactly how we operated, so people always saw it as my practice, so to speak.
I think it’s unfortunate at a lot of levels. But doctors have been besieged by so much other stuff. If all you had to do was take care of patients, life would be difficult enough, but the electronic medical records have been a heavy burden for people. They’re a heavy burden if you’ve got a small practice, trying to buy the hardware and software to get online.
My perception coming out [of medical school] in the late ’70s, ’80s was Dr. Welby, Dr. Kildare, family doctor. You got out, you opened up a shingle, you had your place, you knew people in town, they came in and saw you, you worked on your own, you saw your own patients in the hospital, you saw patients here, and it was a vocation, a career, a calling.
Health care has changed, and I think a lot of people, they’re smart and they’re interested and they’re compassionate, but it’s a job, and they have a lot more, and maybe appropriately so, maybe people in my generation and older didn’t have enough concern for their own personal lives.
CTMIRROR: You’ve had a lot of personal experiences in a lot of different realms, whether it’s medicine or the criminal justice system or the work with your foundation and the education issues. I was curious about your thoughts on how you balance, as I’m sure every legislator does, your personal experiences and the work you do here, and how that informs either your initiatives or your positions. How do you think about that?
PETIT: I understand the doctor-patient relationship at a very specific level over the course of 35 years or so. I understand it from a political, legislative point of view, being with Hartford County [Medical Association] for 15, 20 years, on the board a dozen years, at the state level. And I think the legislature may play a bigger role in terms of insurance, in terms of certain requirements like the electronic medical records, et cetera, as opposed to directing the doctor-patient relationship.
I think I have my most solid knowledge base there.
I won’t say I’m an expert on insurance or insurance law, but I accepted and dealt with a lot of insurance companies as a practitioner, talked about it as someone involved in organized medicine, and deal with it as a consumer.
The foundation has given me a lot of, over nine years, in the beginning a lot of the grants we gave were to domestic violence groups. So I met with a lot of people.
Learned about groups like, unfortunately, the club that no one wants to be in, survivors of homicide. Learned what it’s like to be a victim and thrown into the system, learned what the [Office of the Victim Advocate] and the [Office of Victim Services] does.
Learned that we have, in the New Haven court, we have one victims advocate. That’s crazy. Beata [Bagi, the Victim Services Advocate] is down there and there could be 15 murders in New Haven this year. My family was murdered in ’07. We went to trial in ’10 and ’11. So not only was she dealing with the families from ’10 and ’11, she was dealing with the families from ’09, ’08, ’07, and ’06, depending on how long a case was dragged out. So if there’s 15 people a year for five years, that’s 75 people, that’s 75 families, for one person to try to get through the system, between hearings and meeting with the district attorneys and hearing what the defense was going to do and dealing with the stuff in the paper and dealing with trying to apply for victims’ services benefits and things. So, definitely underserved. We needed three Beatas down in New Haven, not one, and I think most of the other superior courts are the same way.
You think, “Wow, we had 10 initiatives for Second Chance Society for people who committed crimes,” but I’m not hearing a lot about the victims.
And in some ways I get it. Human nature, everyone feels bad when they hear a sad story, and everyone says, “Wow, that’s terrible,” but you really don’t like to think about it. You really don’t like to think about someone who got raped or someone whose sister or brother or parent got murdered or stuff. It’s sort of human nature. Someone pulling themselves by the bootstraps or something and someone making a go of it, they made a mistake in the criminal justice system, they’re getting better – even though they committed the crime, that’s almost more…
There’s some issues with getting victims’ rights out in front of people…Our Office of the Victim Advocate, in Connecticut, we have four people. We have four people. Four people. That’s like, really? Really, we have four people for the entire state of Connecticut?
…So I am definitely informed by that and have unfortunately the insiders’ view that most people don’t get, and hopefully most people don’t get.
CTMIRROR: I’m curious about your thoughts about the Second Chance proposals that are likely to come up this year. What’s your assessment of them? Are there ways to tweak it? How would you like the see those kinds of issues dealt with?
PETIT: I’m all for second chances, especially for nonviolent offenders. So it’s not that I’m against it, but I think there needs to be a balance. I think we need to think about spending more money on victims and victims’ services and victims’ rights.
I’m not against it. I’ve never been a big fan of sentence reductions, and I wasn’t before my family was murdered. People seem to think that every opinion that I have was formed by that and that alone.
You know, someone’s convicted of a violent crime and they are judged by a jury and a judge, defended by somebody in a fair trial, and they decide it’s five years or, as you know, 97 percent of criminal cases in Connecticut are plea bargained, very few go to trial. So if they decided that was the best deal they were going to get, five years, I don’t know nibbling at the edges makes any sense a year later.
Why then go to the trouble of having judges that have been educated for 20, 30, 40 years and prosecutors and defendant attorneys that have been educated for 20 and 30 years, and a jury that, if it’s a jury trial, it’s been brought in to review all this data, have them make a decision and then supersede it, say, “You know what, we know better than you do. We don’t actually know the facts of your case but in general this is what we’re going to do?” Philosophically, it doesn’t make any sense to me.
I think it’s probably more of a money issue, to try to get people out of jail and cutting costs. Which I understand. But I think, you know, if you did the crime, you pay the fee, you do your time.
CTMIRROR: You mentioned people assuming they know the root of all your views on things. How do you deal with that? Or do you?
PETIT: It was a minor issue in the campaign. Some people said, “Oh, you’re running because you want to reinstate the death penalty.” I was somewhat incredulous. It was like, “No.” I’m running because of the budget issues, because of business issues, because I love Connecticut and want it to be a better place to live. I want my son to be able to grow up here. That’s why I’m running.
Fortunately the issue of the death penalty only comes up and affects a very tiny amount of people, thank God.
The bigger issues are day-to-day, are jobs, are the economy, and money, and those are things that we have to focus on. But it doesn’t mean that I agree with the previous decisions, I don’t.
I’m pro-victims’ rights, per se. And happy to support issues revolving around victims’ rights. The bigger issue is still the economy and jobs and job growth and making Connecticut a confident, vibrant, growing kind of state.
This Q&A was edited for length and clarity.