How perfect it is that President Donald Trump asked the Senate to put more heart into his health care bill when the actual heart thumping in Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s chest might have ceased beating years ago, were it not for the government clinic directly below the Senate floor?
Back in 1928, Congress passed a resolution creating the Office of the Attending Physician (OAP) at the Capitol to minister to the medical needs of its members. The OAP has since then provided basic medical care to senators and representatives, who pay only a modest annual fee—presently $503. The rest of the cost is covered by the taxpayers, and it is one item of federal spending that is never significantly cut.
Among the services offered by the OAP are regular check-ups, such as many people without health insurance forego. McConnell has long taken regular advantage of this particular perk, and, following one in 2003, the OAP doctor recommended he take a stress test just as a precaution. He was experiencing nothing to indicate heart trouble.
“I had no symptoms,” McConnell would note in his 2016 memoir, The Long March.
Among the uninsured, such a test can cost from $1,000 up to as much as $10,000. McConnell paid nothing at all at what was then Bethesda Naval Hospital, now Walter Reed Medical Center. He would write in his memoir, “I had no reason to believe this appointment would be anything other than completely uneventful.”
The first indication to the contrary came when the doctor entered the examining room afterward with “a look of concern shadowing her face.”
“I don’t have great news, Senator,” the doctor said as recounted in the memoir. “You failed the stress test.”
McConnell would recall being “stunned into silence.” He had suffered polio as a child, but had fully recovered and had been in good health since then. He never smoked. He exercised. He watched what he ate, even avoiding for the most part the “candy desk,” the stash of sweets at the back of the Senate floor.
“It could be a fluke and mean nothing,” the doctor went on. “But we have to take precautions. I’m going to schedule you for a cardiac catheterization. That’ll allow us to take pictures of your heart and see if there’s any reason for concern.”
“When will we do that?” McConnell asked.
“Right now,” the doctor replied.
McConnell convinced the doctor that the procedure could wait until after President George W. Bush’s State of the Union address the following day. He underwent the procedure that Friday at the naval hospital.
“The doctors at Bethesda National Naval Medical Center performed the catheterization,” McConnell says in the memoir. “Afterward, I was sitting in a chilly recovery room, still in my hospital gown, waiting for the results.”
McConnell busied himself with emails concerning a judicial nomination.
“When the doctor walked back into the room, I put my BlackBerry down,” he would recall in his memoir. “I was feeling impatient to hear that everything was fine so I could return to the office and deal with these matters. But he didn’t tell me everything was fine. What he told me was that he had very bad news. I needed a triple bypass.”
The surgeon everybody recommended, Dr. Alan Spier, happened to be performing a similar government-funded procedure that very day on Florida Sen. Bob Graham. McConnell’s surgery was scheduled for the following Monday, and he spent what he termed “an extremely anxious weekend.”
“My mind was filled with questions,” he reports in the memoir. “Would I survive the surgery? Would I feel like myself again? Would I be able to do the job I’d just been elected to do? I wasn’t used to having health problems, and I had no symptoms whatsoever. And yet here I was, wondering if the position I had worked so hard to attain was about to slip away.”
One worry he did not have was money, which looms large for the uninsured even when faced with their own mortality in starkest terms. Health care for members of congress at Bethesda and all military hospitals is fully reimbursable thanks to insurance provided by the government.
Bill Frist, then a senator as well as a surgeon, called to reassure him.
“You have a long career ahead of you, Mitch,” Frist said, as recounted by the memoir. “It’s a good thing this was found before you had a heart attack.”
McConnell checked into Bethesda on Sunday night.
“Shortly after five o’clock the next morning, I was taken into surgery,” he would recall in the memoir. “It lasted a few hours, and went off without complications. After one night in intensive care, I was moved to a private room, and a few days later, I could feel my strength returning.”
He was home soon afterward, but of course had a nurse check in on him daily during his recovery. He eased back on his work schedule. He says in his memoir that he began watching late night talk shows and one night heard Jay Leno riff on him.
“The number two Republican in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, underwent heart surgery last week,” Leno said. “He’s doing fine. Nothing was actually wrong with his heart; it’s just whenever a Republican is elected to a leadership position, they have to have their heart bypassed.”
The memoir goes on to report, “It hurt my entire body to do so, but I couldn’t help but laugh.”
Without the stress test and the subsequent triple bypass, McConnell might have just continued on symptomless and oblivious until he suffered a fatal heart attack. He might not have lived to write his memoir. The Long March would have been cut short in the way of too many uninsured unfortunates who cannot afford potentially lifesaving tests.
But McConnell survived to champion what might be called Unaffordable Wealth Care, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates would leave 23 million people uninsured in a decade.
In the way of the internet, some of his detractors have circulated false reports that he had been treated at a government-funded facility in Warm Springs, Georgia, after being diagnosed with polio at 2-years-old. The Warm Springs facility was actually bankrolled privately by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, along with a foundation he re-established that became the March of Dimes.
“My mother took me there every chance she had,” McConnell writes in his memoir of this facility where FDR himself was treated. “The nurses would teach her how to perform exercises meant to rehabilitate my leg while also emphasizing her need to make me believe I could walk.”
Walk he did. But that did not make the author of The Long March any more inclined to meet with the March of Dimes in the lead up to the present health care bill. March of Dimes president Stacey Stewart had this to say in a statement on Monday:
“We do not know to what extent March of Dimes funding supported Senator McConnell’s polio treatment. What we do know is that millions of children, just like Mitch McConnell, were helped by the work and support of the March of Dimes and our public partnerships… Senator McConnell’s story shows why it is critically important for families—regardless of their incomes—to be able to get the care and treatments they need:
Stewart went on, “Which brings us to today. The fact is that no medical experts or organizations representing actual patients have been asked for input for [the health care bill]. March of Dimes, the national leader in the health of moms and babies, has not had a chance to meet with Senate leadership, or testify on the impact we believe this legislation will have—especially on those lower income and at-risk families.”
She concluded, “This is tremendously concerning since everyone would agree that healthcare should fundamentally improve outcomes for patients first and foremost… We do not believe the Senate’s proposal, similar to that of the House, will achieve this.”
McConnell failed to offer a comment when asked by The Daily Beast about this failure to meet with the March of Dimes. He also was silent when asked about those millions upon millions of uninsured souls who will not have ready access under his plan to the test that possibly saved his life.
“Long March” McConnell did not receive government-funded care for polio, but he sure did when it came to his heart. And he seems as content to deny such preventive care for the less fortunate as he is to ignore the successors to the folks who did in fact help make it possible for him walk as a child.
Fourteen years ago, McConnell laughed despite the pain at that Jay Leno joke about a bypassed heart.
The continued thumping of the heart in McConnell’s chest thanks to advantages he would deny others now proves him to be so heartless that even the likes of Donald Trump has been prompted to say he should add a little heart.