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April 4th, 2012 NIGEL JAQUISS | Elections
 

Doctor in the House? Or Senate?

Oregon medicos flock to state politics as the stakes for health-care reform grow.

news1_meieran_3822PRESCRIBING A CURE: Oregon House candidate Dr. Sharon Meieran stumps for votes in Southwest Portland. - IMAGE: Mike Grippi
The average emergency-room doctor makes about $250,000 a year, but Dr. Sharon Meieran says she now makes “well under” that figure in her job at the ER of Portland Adventist Medical Center.

That’s because she spends time volunteering in her kids’ classrooms, and she’s president-elect of the Oregon College of Emergency Physicians, speaking out on behalf of her peers on a range of health-care issues. 

Now Meieran is shooting for an even bigger pay cut by going after a $21,612-a-year job as a member of the Oregon House of Representatives.

Meieran, 47, has advocated for the Multnomah County ban of bisphenol A, written op-eds for The Oregonian about prescription drug abuse, and testified in Salem. But it’s what she witnesses every day in the emergency room at Portland Adventist Medical Center in outer Southeast that prompted her to jump into a legislative race.

“We see the results of addiction, mental illness and homelessness that show the system is failing,” Meieran says. “We see what happens when health care, education and public safety break down. But I’m not fixing the problem there.”

Meieran is now part of an unprecedented trend in modern Oregon politics: She and five other doctors are running in their first races for elected office.

“Going back 25 years, I cannot remember a time when there were this many,” says Jim Carlson, president of the Oregon Health Care Association. “And they come from different parties and different regions of the state.”

Three decades ago, Gov. John Kitzhaber parlayed his experience as an emergency-room doctor into expertise on health-care policy. Kitzhaber, who previously served from 1995 to 2003, has made health care a top issue.

“Ted Kulongoski had an agenda that was basically insuring kids,” says state Rep. Mitch Greenlick (D-Portland), House Health Care Committee co-chairman. “It’s very different having Kitzhaber pushing a health-care agenda.”

Dr. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, a family physician, got appointed in December to the Oregon Senate seat held by now-U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici. 

Dr. Scott Hansen, a Gresham dentist, and Dr. Scott Roberts, an oral surgeon from North Bend, are GOP Senate candidates. Dr. Thuy Tran, a Democrat and Northeast Portland optometrist, is seeking nomination to the House seat being vacated by Portland mayoral candidate Jefferson Smith. 

Dr. Knute Buehler, an orthopedic surgeon from Bend, is running for secretary of state on the Republican ticket and will face the incumbent, Democrat Kate Brown, in the fall. Buehler, a Rhodes scholar and former Oregon State baseball player, has been a strong fundraiser.

But Meieran—the only legislative candidate who has snagged Kitzhaber’s endorsement—also has a compelling résumé. Before medical school, Meieran practiced intellectual property law in San Francisco for seven years, where she helped Silicon Valley entrepreneurs protect their inventions. 

“I decided to make the change when I was 30,” she says. “I wanted to do something more meaningful.”

Other doctors-turned-candidates say their experiences with a broken health-care system persuaded them to run.

Hansen, the Gresham dentist, says he’s grown increasingly frustrated with paperwork and regulation in the Oregon Health Plan. He says the plan intends to improve outcomes for patients, but it actually reduces compensation for doctors—and the number of patients served.

“I understand the laws that state, local and federal governments use to require practitioners to spend money that may be unnecessary,” Hansen says. “If you haven’t been practicing, you don’t see that.”

Tran has worked extensively with the Lions club to get eyeglasses for people who cannot afford them. She says running her own clinic for 15 years has taught her the difficulties many Oregonians face in meeting basic needs. 

“I think I have valuable experience around the issue of access to medical care,” Tran says. 

Prior to Steiner Hayward's December appointment, the Legislature had two doctors: Sen. Fred Girod (R-Stayton), a dentist, and Sen. Alan Bates (D-Medford), an osteopath. Physicians’ groups have poured $2.3 million into Oregon campaigns since 2010. Bates got $72,000, the most of any legislative candidate.

Carlson, who has met most of the medically trained candidates, says they chose politics without being recruited. “Most of these folks are self-starters,” he says.

Meieran says the motivation is an extension of the problem-solving doctors are taught.

“Doctors are well-educated people,” she says. “They see what’s going wrong with this country—and maybe this is part of their response.” 

 
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