Health Policy Propels Dozens of Doctors in Bids for Congress

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By Alex Ruoff

The last straw for Kim Schrier was the bill to overhaul Obamacare that passed the House but failed in the Senate last year.

Schrier, a pediatrician working in Issaquah, Wash., saw it as another threat to the health law’s protections for people with serious medical conditions coming from a Republican-controlled Congress and warned her congressman, Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), about it.

When it passed the House, even though Reichert voted against it, Schrier felt she needed to take action. She spoke with her managers at Virginia Mason Medical Center, where she has worked for the past 17 years, about taking a leave of absence and reached out to progressive groups about her chances of swelling the relatively paltry ranks of liberal health-care providers in the House.

“There were a few months of soul searching,” Schrier told Bloomberg Law. “It’s not easy to take a year off. If I were in private practice, that practice would fall apart.” She is hoping to replace Reichert, who plans to retire after seven terms in office.

Schrier’s story is similar to many of the 28 other doctors vying to join Congress in 2018, most of them Democrats. They’re hoping health care remains a main issue for voters this year because they’re selling themselves as experts in health policy.

There’s slated to be at least 45 doctors with their names on congressional ballots this year, 15 of them Republican incumbents seeking re-election and 19 of them Democratic challengers. The exact number is unclear as no association or group keeps a record of health-care providers seeking office.

They all face similar obstacles: lucrative careers that must be put on hold and a health-care industry that heavily favors incumbents. However, they’re being propelled by groups on both sides of the aisle injecting hundreds of thousands of dollars into House and Senate races across the country hoping to get more doctors into office.

Health-Care Questions

Several of those seeking to trade their white coats for suit coats in November, both Republican and Democrat, told Bloomberg Law they want to shake up health policy in Washington, namely how federal lawmakers treat the Affordable Care Act, and have found it a potent message for voters.

“I don’t see anyone, Republicans or Democrats, offering meaningful solutions,” Christopher Peters, a Republican surgeon trying for the second time to unseat Rep. Dave Loebsack (D-Iowa), told Bloomberg Law. “There’s nothing in the center.”

Peters said he wants to give younger, healthy Americans the option to take advantage of tax credits to buy high-deductible insurance plans and to encourage them to set aside money for health-care emergencies. He said Congress isn’t properly addressing the rising cost of health care.

Health care has been top of mind for Congress since 2016 as Republicans attempted to repeal and replace the ACA in 2017 and lawmakers now try to come to grips with the opioid crisis. Many of the doctors running for Congress expect it to be top of mind for voters too.

“Health care is the No. 1 issue on people’s minds,” Christine Mann told Bloomberg Law. Mann is a family physician seeking to defeat Rep. John Carter (R-Texas), who has held his seat for 16 years

Getting Doctors to Run

Doctors generally see themselves as scientists and well equipped by their profession to tackle policy issues, Jason Westin, an oncologist trying to unseat Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), told Bloomberg Law. However, most are reluctant to leave their practices to run for Congress when they understand how much work goes into campaigning.

“Most aren’t well-versed in what it takes to run for office, the fundraising and the campaigning,” Westin said.

There have been 49 doctors elected to Congress since 1960, nearly all of them Republican men, according to a 2004 study and an analysis by Bloomberg Law. There are 15 members of the GOP Doctors Caucus, which represents Republican health-care providers in the House, and three Republican senators who are doctors. There are only two Democratic doctors in Congress, Reps. Ami Bera (D-Calif.) and Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.).

The underrepresentation of doctors in recent years compared with other professions doesn’t appear to be caused by a lack of effort by the industry.

Several medical societies, like the American Medical Association and the American College of Emergency Physicians, run workshops and training programs for health-care providers interested in running for office. These groups also help fund the campaigns of some doctors, although they’re far more generous to incumbents.

Two progressive groups have stepped in to push liberal doctors into office. A group called 314 Action has funneled $70,000 into campaigns across the country to support candidates with science backgrounds and has another $119,961 on hand to boost campaign coffers, according to Federal Election Commission data. Another, the Physician Women for Democratic Principles, has raised nearly $100,000.

Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas), an obstetrician who heads an influential House health panel, founded an organization called the STAT Initiative to elect conservative doctors to Congress. His group is supported by his Lone Star Leadership PAC, which has funneled $240,000 to various other political committees and has more than $111,000 cash on hand to support more campaigns.

Burgess told Bloomberg Law he gives advice to people who contact him about running for Congress, regardless of their background, and funnels funds to doctors he thinks can win.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Ruoff in Washington at aruoff@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Brian Broderick at bbroderick@bloomberglaw.com

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