Doctor vs. Doctor For Congress

In November, voters in East Tennessee will participate in the only U.S. Congressional election in which voters will choose between two doctors. This is a great opportunity for TN 01 citizens to weigh in on two very different visions for the future of healthcare in America. As previous readers of my newsletters and posts know, I am an Obstetrics and Gynecology (Ob/Gyn) physician, as is the Republican incumbent, Phil Roe.

I would like to point out that Dr. Roe is a colleague, and I plan to discuss my disagreements with his positions in a collegial fashion. Most of his patients liked him when he practiced Ob/Gyn and most of my patients like me now. When we were both practicing in Johnson City before his election to Congress, patients who presented to either of us were treated to standard of care obstetrics and gynecology management as per the guidelines of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

I have always had an interest in public service. Until now, I have satisfied this through the practice of medicine and involvement with issues of public and international health. It was the 2017 plan of the U.S. House of Representatives to repeal, but not replace, the Affordable Care Act that “pushed me over the edge,” so to speak, and led me to run for Congress. That plan, enthusiastically endorsed by Phil Roe, would have caused over 20 million unfortunate Americans to lose healthcare coverage through no fault of their own.

As a physician I knew this was wrong.

I could not comprehend how Rep. Roe, also a physician, could turn his back on this core ethical principle. I could not understand how he could ignore the massive human suffering that I knew his proposed policies would cause.

So I stood up for what I knew to be right for the people and decided to run for Congress. Now I’m on the November ballot. Between now and the election, I plan to do my best to cut through the partisan rhetoric and help voters focus on real issues.

I would like to point out that my disagreement with Dr. Roe is political and professional, not personal. When he was practicing, he was a respected colleague and I plan to discuss our disagreements in a mutually respectful fashion.

One of the differences in our backgrounds is that Dr. Roe worked in an office with other private practice doctors while I work in a non-profit medical school practice. In my medical school practice, I take care of people from all walks of life, including some with poor or even no insurance. My patients include other doctors, lawyers, homemakers, businesswomen, and also people with significant challenges—disabled patients, prisoners, and people addicted to drugs. For me, each patient has unique needs, and the responsibility of providing for these needs is what makes the practice of medicine a humbling career.

In many private practices, only patients with “good” insurance are seen. This may be why Dr. Roe could support removing people from their healthcare access. Perhaps he has not looked into the eyes of so many patients who have a treatable illness, but are too sick to work—they can’t get health care insurance because they don’t have a job, and ultimately they can’t get better because they can’t get treatment without insurance. These are real humans, in our region, who are locked in a vicious negative cycle. This is certainly a topic for in-depth discussion at the future debates between me and Dr. Roe that he has indicated he will attend.

Another difference is that, unlike Dr. Roe, I’ve not received tens of thousands of dollars of support from the U.S. medical industrial complex. I resigned my membership in the American Medical Association (AMA) years ago when I disagreed with some AMA decisions. But even the AMA states in its principles of medical ethics that “A physician shall support access to medical care for all people.” To the AMA, the word “shall” plainly means this is not an option or a matter of political convenience—it is a duty. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, an organization that includes both Dr. Roe and me as members, also supports universal healthcare access.

It bears repeating that I strongly disagree in the most emphatic terms with the “healthcare” bill passed in 2017 by the U.S. House of Representatives (which Dr. Roe supported) that would have removed so many people in our region from healthcare coverage. I have seen the people targeted by this bill in my office during times of medical need. As your Congressman, when I make decisions about the healthcare of America, I’ll remember the patients who have trusted me and my profession for medical advice and therapy, and I will not cast votes that betray that trust. I’m concerned that Dr. Roe is influenced by the tens of thousands of dollars in donations he’s received from pharmaceutical companies and other medical for-profit organizations that have supported him over the years. As Congressman-elect Phil Roe himself said in 2008, “When someone gives politicians money, they’re going to expect something from it.”

I’d also like to take an opportunity to talk about keeping promises. For example, I can promise to a patient to treat her with all the respect and dignity she deserves, but I can’t promise her that my treatment will make her better—human bodies are just too unpredictable for that. So, I don’t make promises I can’t keep.

Phil Roe made an important promise in 2008. He promised to serve only five terms. Voter faith in that promise helped him get elected, and now that time has passed. This year’s election, in which he seeks a sixth term, is a betrayal of that promise. After a long period of silence, he has made some recent comments, but he hasn’t fully explained his decision to break that promise. There have been references to a desire to continue his work on the Veterans Affairs committee, but it is unlikely he’ll be chair of that committee, even if he retains his seat in November, since national trends indicate that the Republican party is likely to lose control of the House of Representatives. Perhaps he’ll give more details on the broken promise later in the campaign season.

As we prepare for the final months of this election cycle, I offer my thanks to all who have supported my campaign so far, and my welcome to those who will join me in the coming weeks. We have achieved much in the first months of the campaign—a critical mass of voters knows that, for the first time in decades, there is a real election in this District with a viable Democratic candidate who has the grit to win an election, and the energy to represent the people afterwards.

Many people have asked, “What can I do to help?” There are plenty of ways to get involved. I don’t have the financial Political Action Committee (PAC) support that Dr. Roe has—my campaign is based on donations from everyday Americans—so logging onto olsenforcongress.com and making a contribution will help. “Like” the campaign on Facebook. Forward this communication to your friends and let them know Marty Olsen stands for Everyday Americans. Talk to people. Knock on doors. Sign up to volunteer at olsenforcongress.com.

This is one of the most important elections in American history. Are we going to continue the divisiveness and meanness that seem to have permeated so much of the political discussions of late? Or are we going to affirm our Appalachian values and take the path of looking out for and respecting our neighbors, maintaining fiscal responsibility, and being good stewards of our world? I appreciate your help in convincing voters to take the better path.