The two physicians sworn in as new members of the House of Representatives, Drs. Ami Bera and Raul Ruiz, are both California Democrats, and physician groups said it's their backgrounds as primary-care and emergency physicians that could serve as factors in improving the country's healthcare policies.
The number of doctors in the House remains at 16 (17 if you count Dr. Donna Christensen, the nonvoting delegate representing the Virgin Islands), as Republicans Dr. Nan Hayworth, a New York ophthalmologist, did not win re-election, and Dr. Ron Paul, a Texas obstetrician and gynecologist, ran unsuccessfully for president and did not seek re-election to his House seat.
Bera is an internist from the Sacramento area and Ruiz is an emergency physician from Rancho Mirage in Southern California, and physician groups said they look forward to working with them both.
"It's our belief that having physicians as members of Congress is a benefit to the American public and helpful to the profession," said Dr. Jeffrey Cain, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians.
Noting that the AAFP is a bipartisan organization, Cain said that having an internist such as Bera in Congress is good because "primary care is part of the solution to a dysfunctional healthcare system." Ruiz's background, Cain added, is a plus because he has seen how "the underserved" use hospital emergency departments for primary-care services.
Cain also wished the two departing members of Congress well.
"We believe with both Drs. Paul and Hayworth, they brought a perspective that nonmedical lawmakers just don't have," Cain said.
Dolores Green, executive director of the Riverside County (California) Medical Association, said she has known Ruiz for years and thinks he will represent his district well. She noted that he grew up working on farms in the Coachella Valley and is committed to addressing access problems and increasing physician training programs.
"He has seen first-hand the impact of people who don't have insurance using the ER for their primary care," she said.
Green said the association had previously backed the incumbent, Republican Mary Bono Mack, but gave its support to Ruiz in the last election.
"We felt it was time for a change and we were in need of some healthcare expertise as the Affordable Care Act gets implemented," Green said. "I think he'll be a breath of fresh air. He's a very moderate person and can work with people on both sides of the aisle."
She added that representatives of the association will be in Washington Feb. 10-11 and will be pushing Ruiz to do what he can to speed California Medicaid payments to physicians.
Dr. Tony Cirillo, director of health policy and legislation advocacy for the Canton, Ohio-based physician management group EMP Management, said both Ruiz and the other emergency-medicine doctor in Congress—Dr. Joe Heck (R-Nev.)—have worked for his company.
"We're very proud of both of them, and we know that they understand what it's like to be in the trenches on a very busy night," Cirillo said. "Having one on either side of the aisle works out well for us in speaking in a unified voice."
Having representatives from emergency medicine is critical at this time, Cirillo said, because of the misperceptions around emergency-department resource use. "The emergency department is not where money gets wasted," he said.