The doctor is in.
In the race for Congress, that is.
Four years after more than 20 physicians sought congressional seats, a second wave is hitting the political shores this fall, with 17 first-time candidates and eight incumbents vying for seats in the Senate and House of Representatives.
It's almost as if doctors want to challenge the centuries-old domination of Congress by their hated rivals, attorneys.
Though this year's class of physician candidates is slightly smaller than 1994's, it is the second-largest since the American Medical Association began tracking the tendency more than two decades ago.
While the threat of healthcare reform may have spurred the class of 1994, this time it's not as clear why so many want to trade their surgical gowns for suits.
"We saw a trend in the early 1990s of healthcare professionals running for office because healthcare was a big issue," said Thomas Nickels, vice president for federal affairs at the American Hospital Association. "That started it. Healthcare reform got people motivated to run for office."
According to Laura Allendorf, director of congressional affairs for the Philadelphia-based American College of Physicians-American Society of Internal Medicine, physicians' interest in politics today is less a result of comprehensive issues like healthcare reform than a reaction to "the growing involvement of the government in physician practices.
"We still have a long way to go to equal the number of attorneys in Congress, but we are making progress," Allendorf said.
Most of the new physician candidates are underdogs in their races, but there are several exceptions.
According to a number of political observers, Ernest Fletcher, a family practitioner running in Kentucky's 6th District, stands a good chance of getting elected. Fletcher, a former state representative, is running for the open seat of Democratic Rep. Scotty Baesler, who is challenging Rep. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) for the Senate. Fletcher is a Republican running in a traditionally Republican district. The Cook Political Report, an inside-the-Beltway monitor, calls the race a tossup.
Another physician running a strong race is William Price, an orthopedic surgeon from Illinois' 12th District. Price, a Republican, is running against popular Rep. Jerry Costello, a Democrat. But sev-eral circumstances may make for a close race. Costello has been attacked for his ties to a convicted felon. Also, Price is the son of former Rep. Mel Price, a Democrat who died in office in April 1988 during his 44th year in the House. Mel Price's son has adopted the GOP, more traditionally the party of physicians.
Like many doctors, Price said one of the reasons he chose to run for office was because "managed care and big government are interposing between the patient and the physician. The cost of compliance is annoying, to say the least; it cuts down on the time (a physician) can spend with patients."
According to the Cook Political Report, Price still trails in a tightening race. The report notes that Costello's ethical issues make the race "worth watching."
As with several other physician candidates contacted by MODERN HEALTHCARE, Price says managed-care reform has been an issue in the race, even though it appears stalled in the Senate for this term. "I hear about it all the time," Price said.
Some physician candidates are being noticed for issues other than healthcare. An example is Gil Aust, an orthopedic surgeon running as a Republican in Alabama's 5th District, who has taken on President Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Several months ago, Aust attracted national attention by running ads that call for Clinton to resign.
Despite those ads, Aust still trails in his race against Rep. Bud Cramer, a four-term Democrat. Aust's aides note that the district has voted Republican in the past several presidential elections, and Cramer came within 2,000 votes of losing the seat in 1994. The Cook Political Report gives Cramer a slight edge in the race.
Aiding the new wave of physician candidates is the AMA, which runs a "candidate training school" each year through its political action committee, AMPAC. Participants get an idea of what they will encounter in a political race and how to organize a campaign, raise money and find volunteers.
There are nine physicians in Congress, with only William Frist (R-Tenn.) in the Senate. Of the eight incumbent physician House members seeking re-election in November, only Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) has a close race.