Vice President Dick Cheney (left) meets with John T. Gill, MD (center) and his wife Mary.

AAOS Now

Published 9/1/2008
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Peter Pollack

Hands-on healthcare advocacy counts

Texas orthopaedist makes sure politicians hear his voice

Like many orthopaedic surgeons, John T. Gill, MD, has strong opinions about the state of the healthcare system in the United States. Unlike many, he has chosen to carry his message directly to his elected representatives by working on their campaigns.

During the last decade, Dr. Gill has spent much of his spare time meeting with government officials, taking an active role in campaign finance committees, and pounding the streets in support of candidates. He is currently dividing his time working on both the John McCain presidential campaign and the reelection bid of U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

“It’s a lot of work,” explains Dr. Gill. “It takes time, but I enjoy the process. I enjoy the people. I enjoy making a difference when it comes to policy decisions in Washington or in Austin—our state capital. Direct involvement may not be for everybody, but I happen to like it.”

It began with a visit
Dr. Gill got his start in politics about 10 years ago when he visited his congressman in Washington, D.C., in support of the Patient’s Bill of Rights. He and the legislator became friends, and soon Dr. Gill was helping out behind the scenes in both state and national campaigns. In 2004, he served as a Texas delegate to the Republican National Convention, and the 2008 election will mark Dr. Gill’s involvement in a third presidential race.

“I find it very stimulating,” he says. “My primary concern is healthcare policy. I’ve learned, however, that I can’t just show up to a legislator’s office and talk about policy. I have to earn my way in. And the way you earn your way through the door is by helping politicians out when they need more from you than you need from them. That’s usually during their campaigns.”

Dr. Gill began the current election season in the summer of 2007 working on the Rudolph Giuliani campaign. When Mr. Giuliani ended his bid for the White House, Dr. Gill reviewed Mr. McCain’s healthcare proposals and determined that they were in line with his personal philosophy. He contacted the campaign leadership, offered his help, and was welcomed aboard.

“My feeling is that health care ought to be driven by free market forces,” says Dr. Gill. “I believe that one size does not fit all. We’re always going to have government programs—such as Medicare and Medicaid. But there are a lot of other options. I just think that overall, free market forces have produced the best healthcare system in the world here. Now, I wouldn’t say our financing system is the best in the world, but the care that’s delivered is. I would like to see that continue.

“If I had to boil it down to the major reason I’m supporting this particular candidate, that would be it. We could debate for weeks on health savings accounts, tax credits, and all the little points, and I’m not sure I have all the answers. In general, though, I believe that it ought to be a free market forces–driven system as opposed to a government mandate/government-run system.”

Support your candidates
Although Dr. Gill has generally supported Republican candidates, he believes that legislators from both parties need to hear what physicians have to say about health care. To that end, he advises all his colleagues to support their chosen candidates.

“Try to get as involved in the campaign or with your candidates as you can,” suggests Dr. Gill. “Physicians—whether Democrats or Republicans—can probably agree on many healthcare issues. We know what it takes to take care of patients and do the best for our patients. But our friends in Congress need to hear our perspective as physicians.

“Make sure that not only do you know the name of your congressional representatives, but that they know your name,” advises Dr. Gill. “You have to get to the point where the representatives know your name when you walk in a room. Keep after them—attend their town hall meetings and fundraisers, bring them information, offer to help in a campaign. That’s when you can make friends with them. They’re very accessible when they’re running for office.

“Over the years, I’ve made friends in multiple states and gotten to know several governors and members of Congress just by being there and helping them out. You know, you have to be willing to write a check every now and then,” he says. “You’ve got to be willing to show up and put in some time. Not everyone wants to do it at the same level that I do, but a small relationship with one member of Congress or one state legislator can still make a big difference. Get to know their names…get them to recognize you, and then you can start feeding them information in support of good policy.”

Peter Pollack is a staff writer for AAOS Now. He can be contacted at ppollack@aaos.org