Pediatrician Mai-Khanh Tran exudes the sort of sunny, pleasant, and calm disposition you might expect of someone who works with kids all day. But the GOP effort to repeal and replace Obamacare has made the Southern California doctor "absolutely angry."
“I’m on the front-line of the medical health care crisis that we’re currently going through,” she told Refinery29 in an interview. “I see, on a daily basis, the impact on real lives, patients who are going to be hurt by the [GOP] health care bill.”
Tran decided to do something about it. And she didn't stop at flooding the U.S. Capitol phone lines. In June, she decided to run for office herself, launching a challenge against incumbent Rep. Ed Royce in California's 39th Congressional District.
She isn't the only one. Health professionals across the country are throwing their stethoscopes in the proverbial ring ahead of next year's midterms, running for everything from Congress to City Council. Many, including some on the ballot this year, are Democrats hoping to ride the wave of public outrage over the health care fight into office. And, mirroring the greater trend of women entering politics in the wake of the 2016 election, a notable number of these political physicians are female.
Utah physician Kathie Allen is attracting major grassroots support in her bid to bring “strong medicine” to Congress. Dr. Lisa Bihmani, a “semi-retired” OB-GYN, is making “affordable, universal health insurance for all of us,” a central theme of her campaign for the New Jersey State Senate. Medical social worker Suzie Brundage is seeking a seat on a city council in the Denver suburbs. And earlier this month, Dr. Hiral Tipirneni announced plans to take on incumbent GOP Rep. Trent Franks in Arizona in 2018.
“I believe in solving problems and improving lives, which is all about people, not partisanship,” Tipirneni, a Democrat, said in a press release announcing her run. “That’s what I did in the emergency room, and I’m running for Congress to do the same.”
The transition from private practice to politics is by no means a new one. There are more than a dozen physicians serving in the current Congress (and let's not forget that Health Human Services Director, Tom Price, himself a former congressman, was also a doctor). AMPAC, a political action committee backed by the American Medical Association that supports candidates for Congress "who will make physicians and patients a top priority" has been recruiting and training candidates for years.
The current crop of MDs in Washington, however, is all male and overwhelmingly Republican. But given the heated nature — and high stakes — of the health care fight, which most recently resulted in the defeat of the GOP's "skinny" repeal bill last week, groups on the left see opportunity to change that ratio.
Emily’s List President Stephanie Schriock applauded the candidacies of female health professionals, saying she is “so excited to see a historic number of women running, including doctors and nurses inspired, in part, by the Republicans’ dangerous health care bill.” Tran is among the candidates the political fund, which supports pro-choice Democratic women for office, has endorsed heading into 2018.
“We need their voices in this fight, because they understand why it’s so important to strengthen our health care system – not demolish it,” Schriock said in a statement to Refinery29. “Perspectives matter, and theirs are essential.”
Such messages could strike a chord with voters, especially given shifting public opinion in the health care fight. The 2010 healthcare law is now more popular than the GOP-backed plan to repeal and replace it, polling shows. And doctors are widely seen as a trustworthy source — a rarity in a political environment plagued by #FakeNews and atrociously low approval ratings for elected officials. (In fact, physicians and nurses outrank college teachers, clergy, and police officers in Gallup’s survey of honest professions).
"Voters are tired of career politicians and the revolving door of politicians and the revolving door of politics," AMPAC declares in a overview of its voter opinion research. "For many, a physician candidate would be viewed as a breath of fresh air, someone who can bring new ideas to the system. The current political environment suggests an anti-status quo candidate could appeal to many voters."
On the flipside, the research found voters are wary that doctors don't have enough experience in other aspects of governing, including spending, and that they care about health care above all else. To that end, these candidates should be sure voters know "you’re not just a 'Johnnie-one-note,' focused on your medical practice to the exclusion of everything else." "Highlight your community involvement, from Little League to PTA. Your varied background makes you a stronger candidate, a more appealing figure and less one-dimensional," AMPAC advises. (The group did not respond to interview requests from Refinery29.)
Tran is quick to emphasize how her personal experiences shape her view of policy, as a refugee, as student going to college on a Pell Grant, and, of course, as a doctor. While she says the ACA isn't perfect, she's seen firsthand how it impacts her patients' lives. Take the example of a young girl receiving treatment for a brain tumor. Her mother’s employer didn’t offer insurance, but she was able to get the family crucial coverage under the ACA. After the election, the mother and Tran huddled in her office and cried. “There’s no way this family is going to be able to buy any insurance” without the ACA, Tran said.
The first-time candidate is also bringing her experience as a patient to the table. Tran is a two-time breast cancer survivor herself. And she says she went through eight rounds of IVF before conceiving her own daughter. All that, she argues, gives her intimate knowledge of why access to high-quality care matters.
“[Being a doctor] gives me a perspective that I think people in power don't have, the perspective that comes with the heart, combined with the real understanding of how complicated this issue of healthcare is,” adds Tran.
An early test of whether that message will work could come as soon as this year, as female health professionals run in off-year races. Allen, for example, initially set out to challenge GOP Rep. Jason Chaffetz in the midterms. But the incumbent resigned abruptly earlier this year, and she’s now competing in a November special election for the deep red district. Her campaign has raised more than a half million dollars through the online crowdfunding site CrowdPac so far.
Women in medicine are also on the ballot in some state and local elections this November. Dr. Dawn Adams, a longtime nurse practitioner and health advocate, says she’s long been frustrated and concerned with the lack of infrastructure for health services in the state. Now, she worried changes to the federal policy will make things worse for the poor and vulnerable communities she serves.
After attending a candidate bootcamp, she decided to challenge the GOP incumbent for a seat in the Virginia State House of Delegates.
Adams, a Democrat, believes people are “tired of lawyers making laws across the country.” And she thinks her background has given her the communication skills and confidence to make a difference.
“I have the advantage of having to work with surgeons most of my career,” she quipped. “I don’t have any problem standing up for health care.”