Finding a foothold on health care

In packed race for Cardin's seat, candidates show off their medical experience

U.S. House

Maryland Votes 2006

September 05, 2006|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,sun reporter

Two are physicians. One is a nurse. Another is an attorney who represents hospitals.

So it's not surprising that the candidates in the 3rd Congressional District are naming health care reform as one the most important issues in the race to replace Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, who is running for Senate.

Each stakes a claim to being the most versed in crafting a solution that has vexed the nation's politicians for years.

"Nurse Congress Back to Health," is the headline of one direct-mail piece, which pictures the dome of the U.S. Capitol resting in a hospital bed, from state Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Pikesville Democrat and registered nurse.

"Put a Doctor in Congress," is the mantra of former Baltimore City Health Commissioner Peter L. Beilenson, a Baltimore Democrat quick to point out he would be the first public health physician in Congress.

Even attorney John P. Sarbanes, a Towson Democrat and the son of retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, promotes his medical bona fides, saying his 17 years of representing hospitals and senior-living providers as a lawyer with Venable LLC makes him the health care expert.

On the Republican side, Gary Applebaum says as the former chief medical officer for Erickson Retirement Communities, he would be the first geriatrician in Congress. "The Prescription for Change" is his motto.

Their ties to the medical establishment have translated, in some cases, into endorsements and hefty political contributions. Beilenson says just under one-third of his donations comes from physicians, while Hollinger has a long list of health organizations supporting her, such as the American College of Nurse Practitioners.

Jonathan Weiner, professor of health policy and management at Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health, said he's surprised and pleased to see the prominent role health care has played in the election. "It's pretty amazing that all the ads have emphasized health care as the No. 1 or 2 issues," Weiner said.

Weiner said having a Maryland member of Congress with a health background would certainly help, though he's not optimistic about the prospects of federal-level reform. "We haven't seen any action in Washington on universal health care," he said.

That inaction persists even though Congress already has its share of health professionals. According to the Congressional Research Service, there are 12 medical doctors (including a psychiatrist), three dentists, three nurses, two veterinarians, two psychologists, an optometrist, and one pharmacist in the 109th Congress (by comparison, there are 279 former state legislators and 109 former congressional staffers).

The 3rd District candidates say their internal polling shows health ranking among the most important issues with voters in the district, which includes parts of Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Anne Arundel and Howard counties.

Still, health care isn't an issue that's likely to result in voter decisions in a primary, said Larry Sabato, a professor of political science at the University of Virginia.

"Health care - everyone says they care about it," said Sabato. "I haven't found many races where it determined the result. All the rhetoric sounds alike. They're all for better health care. Well, good.

"So how do voters make their decisions? They look to the differences. It doesn't seem to me like there all that many differences that matter."

Democratic candidate Andy Barth, a former WMAR-TV reporter, agreed. As one of the last to respond to a question about health care reform at a candidates forum last week, he joked, "I don't want to belabor this, coming after my doctor and nurse."

Still, the candidates are tackling the issue head-on on the campaign trail. Democratic candidates largely agree that the current health care system is in a state of crisis and sharply criticize the Medicare Part D prescription drug plan, which they say benefits pharmaceutical companies more than consumers.

Most of the eight Democratic candidates are calling for a government-backed universal health care plan, while Applebaum says he supports government vouchers or subsidies to help individuals purchase plans.

Hollinger notes that she has sponsored just about every version of a universal health care bill possible. Among her greatest accomplishments, she said, is a law that allows seniors to get a Medicaid waiver to receive care in their homes and one that expanded community and school-based health clinics.

If elected, Hollinger said, she hopes to change federal law to eliminate the need for such a waiver. With regard to health insurance, she supports expanding Medicaid and Medicare eligibility and increasing funding to community and school-based health clinics.

"My plan builds on what we have and having had the legislative experience that my colleagues don't have, you begin to know what's possible," she said.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.