In one moment, Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), an anesthesiologist, is holding a news conference advising people to get vaccinated. He’s even helped administer COVID-19 shots in his eastern Maryland district.
But in another moment, Harris is on the radio talking about his disappointment that he couldn’t find a pharmacy that would fill a prescription he wrote for ivermectin—an antiparasitic—to treat a patient with COVID-19, a viral infection.
The arts of medicine and politics don’t always go well together.
In an era when public health has become intensely politicized, Republican doctors in Congress walk a fine line between following the party and appealing to conservative voters while dispensing medical advice that sometimes runs counter to the mainstream.
The Food and Drug Administration has cautioned people against using ivermectin to treat or prevent COVID-19 infection because it hasn’t been approved for that purpose. The American Medical Association and other physician societies strongly oppose prescribing or dispensing the drug to COVID-19 patients outside of clinical trials. Harris later noted that physicians can and do routinely prescribe drugs off-label at their discretion.
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Harris is a co-chair of the GOP Doctors Caucus, a group of 18 House physicians, dentists and pharmacists established in 2009 while Democrats in Congress were writing the Affordable Care Act. The caucus routinely weighs in on health policy matters, such as ACA repeal, surprise billing, physician payment and the pandemic. Republican leaders frequently cite their expertise.
Harris, who was first elected in 2010, said passage of the ACA inspired most of the Republican doctors currently serving in Congress to seek office.
“Physicians in general, especially those in private practice, were getting frustrated by the amount of paperwork and the government and insurance companies both making the practice of medicine much more difficult and interfering with the normal patient-doctor relationship in many ways,” Harris said.
Physicians undoubtedly bring experience to Congress that most lawmakers don’t have. They are medical professionals who have provided patient care and have firsthand experience with the real-world consequences of federal health policy.
However, this perspective leans heavily Republican: 20 of the 23 doctors, including all five dentists, currently serving in Congress belong to the GOP. This group also represents a narrow segment of their profession in other ways. These doctors are almost all white men from rural areas, whereas the physician workforce itself is growing increasingly urban and liberal, and women and people of color are joining the ranks in record numbers.
Physicians have served in Congress since the beginning of the republic. Even before then, several were signatories of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. From 1960 on, they’ve mostly been Republicans, according to a JAMA article published in 2004.
That’s still the case today, and it’s unrepresentative of physicians’ political affiliations outside Congress. In 2016, 35% of doctors considered themselves Democrats; 27% said they were Republicans and 36% identified as independents, according to a Gallup survey. But there are only three Democratic doctors currently in Congress, all in the House.