WASHINGTON — In an election year dominated by health care, dozens of candidates for Congress have a catchy campaign slogan at their disposal: Send a doctor to the House.
Forty-seven physicians — 41 Republicans and six Democrats— are running for the House or Senate this year, three times the number of doctors serving in Congress today, according to a USA TODAY review.
An influx of doctors to Congress could alter the landscape for future debates over Medicare and rising insurance premiums months after lawmakers approved PresidentObama‘s 10-year, $938 billion health care law.
Physician candidates start with at least one political advantage: voter confidence. A Gallup Poll in March found 77% of Americans trust doctors to do “the right thing” on health policy, compared with 32% for Republican leaders and 49% for Obama.
“Physicians just have a different mind-set toward problem solving,” said Larry Bucshon, a Republican heart surgeon running for a House seat in Indiana. “It’s very good training for being a congressman.”
Most of the candidates are touting their profession on the campaign trail. Nan Hayworth, a Republican running for a New York House seat, posts a copy of her medical degree on her website. Ami Bera, a Democratic House candidate from California, told supporters, “My whole adult life has been given to the task of caring for others.”
“We’re trained as physicians to lead by listening,” said Bera, who supports the new health care law but worries it won’t do enough to lower costs.
Zach Knowling, a spokesman for state Rep. Trent Van Haaften, a Democrat running against Bucshon, said his opponent “continues to side with big insurance companies,” despite his background. Van Haaften is a former prosecutor.
The political arm of the American Medical Association doesn’t track how many doctors run in primaries but reports that 30 physicians ran in the 2008 general election compared with 22 in 2006.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a doctor and opponent of the health care law, said more physician input may have led to a better law. “The physician perspective was ignored during the last year and a half,” he said.
There are 16 doctors in Congress today, 3% of lawmakers. Doctors made up nearly 5% of Congress during its first century, said Thomas Suarez, a cardiothoracic anesthesiologist in Baltimore who studied the issue.