Physicians mobilize to run for Congress

May 11, 1994|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Washington Bureau of The Sun

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.

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