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Physician-candidates running against health care law

Some of the physician-candidates without mainstream backing say they feel emboldened by the success of Senator Rand Paul, an ophthalmologist from Kentucky, and other Tea Party favorites who have come to power in recent elections.

Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Some of the physician-candidates without mainstream backing say they feel emboldened by the success of Senator Rand Paul, an ophthalmologist from Kentucky, and other Tea Party favorites who have come to power in recent elections.

WASHINGTON — One candidate’s website shows her wearing blue scrubs as she reviews X-rays. Another shows a candidate with a stethoscope over his white coat. A third displays a photo of the doctor’s bag he uses for house calls.

There is no mistaking what these candidates for Congress are trying to convey: Trust me. I’m a doctor.

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This year, as Republicans make President Obama’s health care law their top campaign issue, physician-candidates have taken on new prominence, especially among Tea Party conservatives. More than 30 medical doctors are running for Congress, at least 24 of whom are Republicans.

They argue that they are particularly credible critics of the law, front-line physicians who see the effects in their exam rooms. If enough of them prevail, they could push the number of physicians in Congress to the highest figure in at least 40 years.

It is unclear how closely they represent the broad views of their profession. Many doctors support the law, as does the American Medical Association. Still, many other physicians have individually expressed fear and skepticism about certain aspects of the law.

“It’s like if you have a bridge collapse, who do you want to put it back together?” said Dr. Monica Wehby, a pediatric neurosurgeon in Portland, Ore., who resigned from the AMA board to seek the Republican nomination to run against Senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat. “You’ve got to have people who know what they’re doing.”

Physician-candidates talk endlessly about the health law on the trail. Some also report being asked about back problems, the shapes of babies’ heads, and liver transplant options for a voter’s uncle.

Wehby is so accustomed to examining babies that she forgets to kiss them.

“I’ll always touch their head,” she said. “It’s just a habit I can’t get out of.”

As recently as 1995, just one physician served in Congress, according to records kept by the AMA, a nonprofit and the profession’s largest trade group. Following the 2010 election, the first after Obama’s health law was signed into law, that number rose to 20, more than in any year since at least the early 1970s. The current Congress, elected in 2012, also includes 20 doctors, just four of whom are Democrats.

Surpassing 20 doctors in the 2014 election might require upset victories, in some cases from conservative candidates who are running against establishment Republicans. But some candidates without mainstream backing say they feel emboldened by the success of Senator Rand Paul, an ophthalmologist from Kentucky, and other Tea Party favorites.

Though Republicans dominate the field of doctor-politicians, there are notable exceptions, including Dr. Donald Berwick, a pediatric specialist who served in the Obama administration and is now running for governor of Massachusetts, in large part because of his role in crafting federal health policy.

“There certainly are many physicians who are squarely in favor of the Affordable Care Act,” Berwick said, adding he did not know why Republican doctors have dominated.

Berwick said physicians’ training in listening to patients before making decisions makes them better equipped to serve in elected office. “I hope more and more clinicians get interested in running for office, and the policy arena,” he said.

The Georgia Senate race alone has three doctors — two Republicans and a Democrat. The two in the crowded eight-person GOP primary field, Representatives Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey, have been trying to outdo each other as to who despises the health law more.

Broun, whose entire practice focuses on house calls, has been especially aggressive in the effort to repeal the law, and strongly supported the strategy that led to last year’s government shutdown. His website shouts: “President Obama is guilty of malpractice.”

Gingrey tried to distinguish his own pledge to repeal the law with a promise to serve only one term if he fails.

“As a doctor, I took an oath to do no harm . . .” Gingrey said in his first television ad. “I’ll help repeal Obamacare in the first term or go home.”

Even conservative Republicans are being attacked. Dr. Milton Wolf is challenging Kansas Republican Senator Pat Roberts, who has served in Congress since 1981. Wolf, who says he is a distant relative of Obama, began promoting himself on conservative news outlets with a 2011 book, “Do No Harm: The President’s Cousin Explains Why His Hippocratic Oath Requires Him to Oppose ObamaCare.”

Wolf asserts that Roberts is not conservative enough and has been in Washington too long. Doctors, he asserts, fulfill the founding fathers’ vision of citizen lawmakers.

“The politicians, the lawyers, they have run our health care system right into the ground,” Wolf said. “It’s going to take some doctors who can fix our system.”

But being a doctor offers no guarantee of success in politics. Former Senate majority leader Bill Frist drew a torrent of professional criticism when, in 2005, he took to the Senate floor “more as a physician than as a United States senator” to challenge the diagnosis of doctors treating Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman who had been declared in a persistent vegetative state. A family struggle over whether to remove her feeding tube had become a national flashpoint and Frist, a heart surgeon, had drawn his medical conclusions based on reviewing video of the patient.

More recently, Gingrey was forced to clarify remarks he made about the biological causes of pregnancy. Gingrey, an ob-gyn, said in a radio interview last year that Republican Todd Akin of Missouri was “partly right” in claiming that “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

Gingrey later clarified that he did not stand by Akin.

Representative Bill Cassidy, a physician in Louisiana, has backing from a cross-section of party leaders in his bid to unseat Senator Mary Landrieu, a Democrat who supported Obama’s health law. The race is one of the most closely watched in the country.

“The president’s health care law is the dominant subject wherever I go,” Cassidy said. “Ninety percent of the questions seem to be related to this, directly or indirectly.”

Cassidy contends that the health law shifts power from patients to bureaucrats. He speaks extensively about his experience working in a public hospital for the uninsured to assert that the expansion of Medicaid in the health law will force more doctors to reject or discharge patients because of poor reimbursement rates.

“If you’re speaking about health care, we have the reality of having dealt with patients, just like a realtor would understand real estate issues,” he said.

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.
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