Physicians mobilize to run for Congress


WASHINGTON -- Believing that they can cure what ails America, an extraordinary number of doctors are pinning campaign buttons on their white jackets and running for Congress in states from Maryland to California.

Forty physicians and seven dentists launched races for the House or Senate this year, the most in recent memory, campaign analysts say.

Although a few have dropped out already, the next Congress could have more doctors than Capitol Hill has seen in decades. There have been no more than seven in any Congress in the past 40 years, according to Congressional Quarterly; only four hold office today.

"This is an amazing number of candidates," observes Paul Starr, a Princeton sociologist who has written a history of American medicine and is a White House health adviser. "I take it to be a mobilization in response to health care reform."

No other legislation would affect the medical profession as much as the health reforms proposed by President Clinton. And doctors like David Doman of Rockville have decided that Congress needs some help.

"I personally believe the nation's need for a physician-legislator will be there for many years to come," says the 43-year-old gastroenterologist, a Democrat who began running last year for the seat held by Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella. He dropped out recently because he could not raise enough money.

Dr. Doman is more supportive of the president's plan than most of the other doctor-candidates, who are outraged because the Clinton plan would increase government authority over health care.

The president's "health care plan just adds more and more government bureaucracy," said Dr. Ron Franks, a Maryland state legislator and Eastern Shore dentist who is running in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate seat held by Paul S. Sarbanes. One other Maryland doctor has entered that race: Dr. Ross Z. Pierpont, a Baltimore surgeon.

Although health reform is the main reason so many doctors are running, other factors drive this surge of political activity, indicating that it may not be just a one-year phenomenon.

One is the medical profession's long-growing disgust with the government and insurance companies, which doctors say are second-guessing physicians and imposing foolish regulations. "I think probably the frustration is quite high amongst physicians, and it's just coming out right now," says Dr. John Steel, a San Diego surgeon who is running for a House seat.

Another factor is the American Medical Association, which for years has been encouraging physicians to become more politically involved -- a message that frustrated doctors may be more willing to heed now.

'It's in politics you do it'

"I think what's happened is the whole health care world and society in general has gotten very political," says Robert J. Blendon, a professor at Harvard's School of Public Health. "There is a sense if you want to alter the course of what you're concerned about, it's in politics you do it."

But as some doctors are finding, it's not easy to make the leap from the examining room to the campaign trail.

Doctors generally don't tolerate the "baloney" that goes with politics, "they're lousy at raising money" and they are "precisely trained," says William D. McInturff, a Republican political consultant. "Politics is not a precise business."

The "baloney" includes behavior that doctors don't ordinarily think of as dignified. Dr. Franks, the 52-year-old dentist from Queenstown, recalls how "awkward" and "very difficult" it was to stand along Route 213 in Elkton, waving a campaign sign at motorists during his race for state office four years ago.

Another surprise, Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald discovered, is that people who trust physicians on medical issues don't necessarily trust them as politicians.

The 47-year-old gynecologist and obstetrician, a Republican candidate for the House in western Georgia, had operated on the wife of a reporter at her hometown newspaper. "He trusted me to cut her open," she says. "But when he asked me a question about what I thought about old-growth forests, he thought I was lying. Is that amazing?"

The public also is more skeptical of doctors than it once was. With surveys showing that most Americans believe that doctors charge too much, Marcus Welby, M.D. has been knocked off his pedestal. Campaigning on health reform could expose physicians to criticism that they are trying to protect their incomes -- which average $170,000.

"I think being a doctor really raises credibility questions," says Lawrence R. Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota, because voters may suspect that doctors are seeking office out of self-interest.

Dr. Doman encountered that attitude while campaigning. "The most common misconception about any doctor running for political office is he will look out for the interests of the medical profession and not the general public," he says.

He tried to put people at ease about his status. "I really from the beginning asked people to call me Dave," he says. "I didn't want to put that distance between the voter and me by having people call me Dr. Doman."

Like most of the doctor-candidates, Dr. Doman has never held office. Although he dropped out of the race in April, $20,000 in debt, he attributes his failure to the difficulty of raising money against a popular incumbent rather than to inexperience.

Dr. Steel touts his lack of political seasoning as a badge of honor. "I'm running as a citizen," declares the 61-year-old Republican, aiming to "keep the typical politician out of office."

In the handful of primaries held thus far, two doctors have received the voters' verdict. The best known physician running, Bernadine Healy, the former director of the National Institutes of Health, lost last week in the Ohio Republican primary for the U.S. Senate, despite having raised $2 million.

Dr. Gene Fontenot, a Republican from Houston, won his party's nomination for a House seat from Texas in March. But he ought to have an asterisk next to his name: A businessman, he hasn't practiced medicine since 1978.

In all, 25 Republican doctors launched campaigns for the House and 10 began Senate races. Only one Democrat filed for the Senate; 11 Democrats announced for the House.

Doctors in the House

The winners will continue a historic tradition. Although only a handful of doctors have served in Congress in recent times, the medical profession once played a much bigger role in Washington, particularly in the 19th century.

The American Medical Association reports that 367 doctors have been members of Congress, the most famous of whom was Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of five doctors who signed the Declaration of Independence.

Yet that number doesn't compare with the horde of lawyers who have served in Congress -- an average of 300 in each Congress since 1953, a majority of the 535 House and Senate seats.

That rankles doctors, who have had a running battle with lawyers over the issue of malpractice law: Physicians want caps on awards won by injured patients; lawyers, who often receive a third of each award, oppose restrictions.

That conflict in mind, the AMA's American Medical News recently gave its blessing -- in rhyme -- to the doctors running for office: "We wish you the best in the contests you've entered, 'cause the view from the Hill is too lawyer-centered!"

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