By PHIL GALEWITZ
The confirmation of Tom Price, M.D., 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, M.D., 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 physicians. 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.