Congress' physician, Dr. Brian Monahan, treats conservatives and liberals. He sees Senators with sniffles and tourists with heatstroke. Like justice, the Office of the Attending Physician that Monahan oversees is blind — to politics, at least.
But with Monahan's note last week declaring Rep. Michele Bachmann in "overall good health" and saying that the Minnesota Republican's migraines are controlled with medication, the nonpartisan and normally under-the-radar office was thrust into a highly charged debate.
Art Caplan, a professor of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, said the release was perfectly proper under ethical standards. After all, Bachmann herself, not the doctor, shared the note with the press. But the move might have been unwise, he said.
"If you start releasing letters like that regularly, then the doctors might feel they have to word them a certain way, knowing that they're going to be made public," he said. Caplan said that could lead to the politicizing of a nonpartisan profession.
Typically, the Office of the Attending Physician is an inconspicuous operation. Its profile is kept low mostly by the confidential nature of its business, and the office did not return calls seeking comment about its role and functions. But it has taken a few turns in the spotlight.
Amid questions about his health during his 2008 presidential bid, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) released reams of his health records, an information dump that included some records from Congress' attending physician.
And Bachmann's letter isn't without precedent: In 2008, then-attending physician John Francis Eisold wrote a letter stating that then-Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) had "recovered fully" from a 1988 brain aneurysm.
More than two decades ago, the office received unwelcome attention when the widow of the late Sen. John East (R-N.C.) sued the government, claiming that the attending physician failed to diagnose a thyroid problem that had contributed to East's depression, and ultimately, to the Senator's 1986 suicide. The court determined in response to the 1990 lawsuit that there was no negligence on the part of the government doctors.
Monahan's letter, which Bachmann's presidential campaign released to the media, notes that it was penned at her "request" and that she has undergone "extensive evaluation" both by his office and a neurologist.
"It has not been necessary for you to take daily scheduled medications to manage this condition," Monahan wrote, a direct response to a story in the Daily Caller citing anonymous sources who claimed Bachmann has difficulty functioning without the drugs.
But it's not just treating Members.
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.
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