GOP's Harris takes on health care policy

Three years after touting his medical background as he campaigned for Congress, Rep. Andy Harris is emerging as a top spokesman in opposition to Obamacare — and taking on other health policy issues as well.

For Harris, a Baltimore County anesthesiologist who occasionally wore scrubs as he ran for office in 2010, the troubled rollout of the health care law is providing a platform just as he has expanded his reach on other medical issues — from human cloning to organ transplants for HIV patients.

While he has become a regular guest on national television to discuss the Affordable Care Act, he has pitched a bevy of health care bills in Congress, some of which have proven controversial. One proposal would benefit fellow anesthesiologists, many of whom have contributed to his campaign.

"The train wreck of the president's health care plan continues," Harris said in one of his several speeches to the House on Obamacare.

The president launched a public relations effort Tuesday aimed at getting people to look beyond the program's technical problems and sign up for coverage. "The bottom line is this law is working and will work into the future," Obama said.

Harris was elected partly on a promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act, a GOP effort that has gone nowhere. But he has also stepped up his engagement in other health care policy debates this year.

He introduced legislation in June to roll back a requirement that insurance companies pay chiropractors, midwives and similar medical staff for procedures typically performed by doctors, for instance.

His proposal to gut that mandate is supported by anesthesiologists who have long fought with specialized nurses over the administration of anesthetics. By contrast, the leading trade group for the nurses called the legislation "anti-competitive."

About a quarter of the campaign money Harris raised in 2010 and 2012 came from medical professionals or doctor groups, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics — nearly $1.3 million in all. The political arm of the anesthesiologists' association ran a radio ad on his behalf in the 2010 election.

Harris, 56, said his proposal would affect many specialists, not just anesthesiologists, and argued that insurance companies should have flexibility to make decisions about qualifications. Harris said his medical license technically allows him to perform brain surgery but he doesn't think insurance companies should be forced to pay him for it if he tried.

"I don't think we should tell insurance companies they can't set the standards," he said in an interview. "I don't want to have the federal government setting the standard."

The legislation has no co-sponsors and has not received a hearing.

Nothing prohibits a member of Congress from introducing legislation that affects their field. Melanie Sloan, executive director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said ethics rules generally prohibit bills that affect a specific member — not the member's line of work.

"If he was pushing a bill to help his own medical practice, that would be different," she said.

Harris — who frequently touts the "MD" after his name as much as the "Rep." before it — also was the first House Republican to co-sponsor bipartisan legislation that allows HIV-infected people to donate their organs to other HIV-infected people. Obama signed the bill into law late last month.

The measure rolls back provisions of the 1984 National Organ Transplant Act that prohibited those donations at a time when the disease was new, not fully understood and virtually always a death sentence.

Supporters say that providing for HIV-infected patients now on waiting lists for organs will also help those waiting for new livers or kidneys who are not infected. It is unclear exactly how many HIV patients are waiting for organ transplants, but Ronald Johnson with AIDS United estimates there are about 500 added to wait lists each year.

"This could save lives," said Johnson, the group's vice president of policy and advocacy.

Harris said he's become more involved in medical policy after his appointment in February to the House Appropriations Committee and its subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education. He is the only doctor serving on the powerful committee.

"A lot of health care issues should be bipartisan because health care is bipartisan," said Harris, the only Republican in Maryland's congressional delegation. "Now, for the first time … I'm in a position where I can much more directly affect it."

There are 20 physicians in Congress. Sixteen are Republicans.

Harris represents the Eastern Shore and portions of Harford, Carroll, Cecil and Baltimore counties. He beat Democratic incumbent Frank Kratovil in 2010 and cruised to re-election last year.

An obstetric anesthesiologist, Harris is on leave from Johns Hopkins Hospital. He still sees a small number of patients at Memorial Hospital in Easton to maintain his board certification.

Harris earned $7,500 in 2012 for his work as a doctor, according to his annual financial disclosure statement. An aide said that money is spent on professional dues and continuing medical education. Harris earns $174,000 a year as a congressman.

A review of his correspondence with the Obama administration shows Harris has previously worked behind the scenes on issues important to anesthesiologists. He signed a letter along with 12 other lawmakers last September opposing a federal regulation to allow nurse anesthetists to bill Medicare directly for pain management services.

Harris and others say some medical professionals are setting up pain clinics with little training because it's a particularly lucrative field. He raised concerns that the lack of training can lead to addiction to pain medication and other problems.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services ultimately approved the new rule, which went into effect this year.

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