The confirmation of Tom Price, the orthopedic surgeon-turned-Georgia congressman, as secretary of Health and Human Services represents the latest victory in the ascendancy of a little-known but powerful group of conservative physicians in Congress he belongs to — the GOP Doctors Caucus.
During the Obama administration, the caucus regularly sought to overturn the Affordable Care Act, and it’s now expected to play a major role determining the Trump administration’s plans for replacement.
Robert Doherty, a lobbyist for the American College of Physicians, said the GOP Doctors Caucus has gained importance with Republicans’ rise to power. “As political circumstances have changed, they have grown more essential,” he said.
“They will have considerable influence over the considerable discussion on repeal and replace legislation,” Doherty said.
Price’s supporters have touted his medical degree as an important credential for his new position, but Price and the caucus members are hardly representative of America’s physicians in 2017. The “trust us, we’re doctors” refrain of the caucus obscures its heavily conservative agenda, critics say.
“Their views are driven more by political affiliation,” said Mona Mangat, an allergist-immunologist and chairwoman of Doctors for America, a 16,000-member organization that favors the current health law. “It doesn’t make me feel great. Doctors outside of Congress do not support their views.”
For example, while the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology has worked to increase access to abortion, the three obstetrician-gynecologists in the 16-member House caucus are anti-abortion and oppose the ACA provision that provides free prescription contraception.
While a third of the U.S. medical profession is now female, 15 of the 16 members of the GOP caucus are male, and only eight of them are doctors. The other eight members are from other health professions, including a registered nurse, a pharmacist and a dentist. The nurse, Diane Black of Tennessee, is the only woman.
On the Senate side, there are three physicians, all of them Republican.
While 52 percent of American physicians today identify as Democrats, just two out of the 14 doctors in Congress are Democrats.
About 55 percent of physicians say they voted for Hillary Clinton and only 26 percent voted for Donald Trump, according to a survey by Medscape in December.
Meanwhile, national surveys show doctors are almost evenly split on support for the health law, mirroring the general public. And a survey published in the New England Journal of Medicine in January found almost half of primary care doctors liked the law, while only 15 percent wanted it repealed.
Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, a caucus member first elected in 2002, is one of the longest serving doctors in Congress. He said the anti-Obamacare Republican physicians do represent the views of the profession.
“Doctors tend to be fairly conservative and are fairly tight with their dollars, and that the vast proportion of doctors in Congress [are] Republican is not an accident,” Burgess said.
Price’s ascendancy is in some ways also a triumph for the American Medical Association, which has long sought to beef up its influence over national health policy. Less than 25 percent of AMA members are practicing physicians, down from 75 percent in the 1950s.
Price is an alumnus of a boot camp the AMA runs in Washington each winter for physicians contemplating a run for office. Price is one of four members of the caucus who went through the candidate school. In December, the AMA immediately endorsed the Price nomination, a move that led thousands of doctors who feared Price would overturn the health law to sign protest petitions.
Even without Price, Congress will have several GOP physicians in leadership spots in both the House and Senate.
Those include Rep. Phil Roe of Tennessee, the caucus co-chairman, who also chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee, and Burgess, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on health. Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana sits on both the Finance and the Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committees. Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming chairs the Senate Republican Policy Committee.
Roe acknowledges that his caucus will have newfound influence. Among his goals in molding an ACA replacement are to kill the requirement that most people buy health insurance (known as the individual mandate) as well as to end the obligation that 10 essential benefits, such as maternity and mental health care, must be in each health plan.
He said the caucus will probably not introduce its own bill, but rather evaluate and support other bills. The caucus could be a kingmaker in that role. “If we came out publicly and said we cannot support this bill, it fails,” Roe said.
The GOP Doctors Caucus has played a prominent role in health matters before Congress. For example, in 2015, when former House Speaker John Boehner needed help to permanently repeal a Medicare payment formula that threatened physicians with double-digit annual fee cuts, he turned to the GOP Doctors Caucus. It got behind a system to pay doctors based on performance — the so-called doc fix.
“When the speaker had a unified doctors’ agreement in his coat pocket, he could go to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and show that, and that had a lot to do with how we got this passed,” Roe said.
But not all doctors are unified behind the caucus. Rep. Raul Ruiz, one of the two physicians in the House who are Democrats, said he worries because few doctors in Congress are minorities or primary care doctors.
Ruiz, an emergency room physician from California who was elected in 2012, said he is wary about Price leading HHS because he is concerned Price’s policies would increase the number of Americans without insurance.
Indeed, many doctors feel the caucus’ proposals will not reflect their views — or medical wisdom. “My general feeling whenever I see any of their names, is that of contempt,” said Don McCanne of California, a senior fellow and past president of the Physicians for a National Health Program. “The fact that they all signed on to repeal of ACA while supporting policies that would leave so many worse off demonstrated to me that they did not represent the traditional Hippocratic traditions which place the patient first.”
Christina Jewett contributed reporting. This story also appeared on National Public Radio (NPR).