Just 13 days before Arizona’s 8th Congressional District holds its special election to send a new member to the House, the Democratic candidate there is warding off political volleys regarding her time as an emergency room doctor.
Hiral Tipirneni, who won the Democratic nomination in February to replace disgraced former Rep. Trent Franks, is under siege by Republican operatives pushing the narrative that she has been dodgy with voters about her medical career.
At issue are a campaign video that shows recent footage of Tipirneni in medical scrubs even though she has been out of practice for more than 10 years; a malpractice lawsuit brought against her after a patient suffered a crippling case of tetanus in 2001; and her connections doing speaking engagements on funding for cancer research for CSRA, a company in Virginia contracted by the government to help administer health care coverage under the 2010 health care law commonly known as Obamacare.
Tipirneni has built a sizable portion of her campaign messaging around her career as an ER doctor in Michigan and Arizona and her role in cancer research advocacy.
The introduction video on her campaign website is suffused with b-roll footage of Tipirneni dressed in blue medical scrubs, filling out paperwork on clipboards, and conversing with hospital patients.
“I spent more than a decade as an emergency room physician,” she says in the video, as background footage shows her examining a patient with an otoscope. “I took an oath to ease suffering, to let facts guide me, and to bring people together to solve serious problems.”
Tipirneni has toured the country for the last decade or so speaking at events promoting cancer research. She says she was inspired to become a full-time cancer research advocate after her mom and nephew died from the disease in the mid-2000s.
Republicans questioned Tipirneni’s authenticity for dressing in doctor’s garb for her campaign videos even though she has been out of practice since 2007.
“It’s disingenuous,” said Jack Pandol, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “Hiral wants voters to believe she’s something other than who she really is: a former physician sued for malpractice who turned to a cushy job making millions hawking Obamacare instead.”
Tipirneni’s campaign pushed back strongly against that characterization of her career.
“Heaven forbid she’s been out there trying to cure cancer, that she hasn’t been wearing a lab coat every day,” Tipirneni’s communications director, Jason Kimbrough, said, defending her from accusations of misleading voters.
Kimbrough pointed to veterans who run for Congress who often tout their military experience as an example of how other candidates tie their political identities to past careers.
“As they should,” he said.
Kimbrough characterized Republicans’ spin on the Tipirneni’s medical career as “a cheap shot,” and said it “smacks of desperation.”
The attacks, he said, come from a place of insecurity among Republicans in a district that has traditionally stayed firmly within the GOP’s grip.
President Donald Trump rolled Hillary Clinton in the district by 21 points in 2016. In February, Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales knocked the GOP’s chances of holding onto the seat in the April 24 special election from Solid Republican to Likely Republican.
“Debbie Lesko knows she is in trouble, so she’s trying to distract voters from her agenda of cutting Medicare, Social Security and access to healthcare for Arizonans,” Tipirneni’s campaign said in a statement.
“Dr. Hiral Tipirneni’s service to thousands of patients and her work in cancer research are worthy of respect — not cheap political smears from a career politician.”
As for the malpractice suit, Lesko’s campaign called for Tipirneni to “disclose the details of this lawsuit and any other medical malpractice suits that have involved either her or her practice,” Barrett Marson, Lesko’s spokesman, said in a text message.
“Voters deserve transparency,” he said.
In the lawsuit, an elderly woman who suffered a leg wound and went to the ER accused Tipirneni, the presiding physician, and her team of failing to administer a shot to immunize her from tetanus.
The woman contracted tetanus and fell into a coma. She recovered but was permanently disabled. She died roughly a year after the coma.
Kimbrough said Tipirneni cannot publicly release the details of the malpractice suit because that would put her in legal peril for divulging confidential patient information.
“I’m confident in the care I rendered,” Tipirneni told ABC 15 in Arizona for a segment on the case. “Of course we feel tremendously bad about any negative outcomes or consequences that patients suffer.”
Tipirneni still has her medical license, Kimbrough said, and was never brought under state medical board review for the incident, much less disciplined by the board. She let her 10-year American Board of Emergency Medicine certification expire in 2016, as she was no longer practicing.
The medical group she worked for settled with the patient for an undisclosed amount because it was “more cost-effective to settle the suit” than to accrue legal fees fighting it, Kimbrough said. The settlement payout covered all the woman’s outstanding medical bills with some money left over for her children.
“No one has disputed the fact that this woman went through a terrible ordeal,” he said. “It just wasn’t due to medical malpractice.”
Correction 5:48 p.m.| A previous version of this story misstated the current condition of the woman who sued Tipirneni.
Correction 6:13 p.m. |A previous version of this story misstated the current state of Tipirneni's medical license and American Board of Emergency Medicine certification.