The attending physician and his staff played a crucial role in responding to the anthrax scare that shook Capitol Hill in 2001. When a letter addressed to then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) was found to contain toxic anthrax spores, the attending physician's office oversaw the testing and treatment of Members, staff and journalists who might have come into contact with the deadly agent.
Most of what happens in the doctor's office, though, is routine. The Office of the Attending Physician does its business behind an unassuming door on the first floor of the Capitol.
It's a model of efficiency, according to staffers and Members who have sought treatment there. It is staffed by Naval officers and personnel, a legacy from the office's founding in 1928. During that year, several Members of Congress fell ill in their offices and three even died. Alarmed by the fact that it took several hours before a doctor could arrive in those cases, Congressional leaders installed a Naval medical office on the premises.
Today, many Members use the attending physician not just to treat urgent illnesses or accidents, but for regular care. Those who use the attending physician as their primary doctor pay a flat fee, $503 annually. They can get flu shots, annual exams, X-rays, physical therapy and referrals to specialists.
The operation, with its main location on the first floor of the Capitol and at least six other satellite offices, is staffed, in addition to the head physician, with 17 other Naval doctors and assistants.
Rep. Paul Broun, a longtime family doctor, said onsite medical facilities are crucial because of the sheer number of people who travel around the Congressional complex every day. "We have a large community here on Capitol Hill that needs to have the ability to see a physician when it's needed," the Georgia Republican said. "Also, the thousands of tourists that visit the Capitol each day have the attending physician's office available to them when they have an emergency."
He praised the care the office provides and offered the ultimate stamp of approval — Broun said he has sought care there himself, both for physical examinations and for acute illnesses.
Others note that the office provides discreet care for Members who travel frequently and, because of irregular schedules, might otherwise find it difficult to get medical care when they need it. For example, in 2000, the attending physician detected melanoma on McCain's temple, something that, reportedly, his doctors at home had missed.
And even amid the current mania for cost-cutting on Capitol Hill, the attending physician's office remains sacrosanct. Its budget, $3.4 million for fiscal 2012 paid to the Navy to cover the office's costs, is down just $7,000 from its 2011 appropriation.
While few could question the value of having medical services in the Capitol, as the health of elected officials, presidential candidates in particular, comes under more scrutiny, some wonder whether the office might become — like so much else in Washington — steeped in politics.
Caplan likens Congress' attending physician to that of a professional sports team.
"The doctor is working not just for the individual patients, but for Congress, and so they have a duty to the organization," he said. "He's making sure the team looks good, in addition to helping you."