Raising the Standard.

Q&A: Dr. Bob Johnson on Health, Physical and Fiscal

Dr. Bob Johnson. (Photo by Blake Seitz)

“People don’t want their clothes, their food, their houses distributed by the government, so why do they want it to distribute their health care?”

Dr. Bob Johnson is a candidate for the House of Representatives in Georgia’s first congressional district. “Dr. Bob,” as he likes to be called, spent most of his working life in the military, first as an Army Ranger and then as a doctor and disaster response specialist. Dr. Bob’s technical roles required him to travel the world. From his travels came stories, and he shares quite a few — he jokes that he is “like Ronald Reagan” in that respect. After he ended his career in the military, Dr. Bob began a private health practice in Savannah. The past decade of his private life, he devoted his time to his medical practice, medical missions and an international consultancy position in disaster relief for developing nations.

THE ARCH CONSERVATIVE‘s Blake Seitz sat down with Dr. Bob to talk about his background and plans for Congress. As Dr. Bob insists, the race is not about glory. The role of the politician, in his view, is more modest than that. This is the first part of a two-part interview.

THE ARCH CONSERVATIVE: While in the Army, you were in charge of medical disaster response for the Pacific. What did that entail?

Dr. Bob Johnson: It was an amplified position from what it had been before. It was given a lot more juice when President Clinton became terrified about the possibility of chemical and biological warfare or terrorist attacks. That was the result of the Aum Shinrikyo attacks in Tokyo in the 1990s and the knowledge that Saddam Hussein was sitting on thousands of tons of chemical and biological weapons.

So we were concerned about those threats, but modern disaster science really looks at response in a holistic way. You need to have a plan in case there’s a hurricane or a downed airliner so that everyone’s playing from the same sheet of music and it doesn’t devolve into chaos. I then traveled around the world teaching emerging nations how to bring their public and private resources to bear so that they can respond to emergencies, which was a very gratifying experience.

I retired from the Army in 2001 and went back to school at the Medical College of Georgia, where I met my wife, an anesthesiologist. We then started a solo private practice, sort of an alien thing to me at that point, but for twelve years I was a sole practitioner with six employees. That was great because it was the first time I was a small businessman providing good jobs, salaries and benefits to half a dozen people. I’m as proud of that as other accomplishments in my life — it’s tough, like walking a tightrope, when you go into business for yourself.

Unfortunately, sole practitioners will go the way of the dodo bird pretty soon because of the hyper-regulatory environment in health care. Not incidentally, this made me more of a conservative as I started looking at the incredible overload of regulatory burden on the practice of medicine.

TAC: Even before 2010, with the passage of the health care bill?

Dr. Bob: Oh yes, way before. This has been going on for decades. The federal government has been an intrusive hegemony in the health care marketplace since the advent of Medicare in 1965. It is getting worse every year with more regulation, more intrusion and more distortion of the marketplace. That’s really why health care is so expensive.

I use this analogy when stumping: every regular person in American knows that if government was in charge of food distribution as opposed to health care distribution, there would be a shortage of everything but canned beets. For example, when I was stationed in Berlin thirty years ago, we would get a pass to go to East Berlin, and there would be signs in front of fast food restaurants that read, “Due to technical difficulties there is no meat today.” There was no drought or adverse conditions, it was just that government could not distribute food. That was an emblematic moment in my life. People don’t want their clothes, their food, their houses distributed by the government, so why do they want it to distribute their health care?

At this point, government involvement in the health market is way beyond a bad joke — it’s a tragedy. If you look at the statistics, before Obamacare came onboard 85 percent of Americans had health care insurance. 83 percent of that 85 percent said they were ‘Very Satisfied,’ ‘Satisfied’ or ‘Somewhat Satisfied’ with their plan. This seems unbelievable to people, but we must remember that even in cases where people do not have health plans, being uninsured does not mean they do not receive care: 50 percent of those who were uninsured said they were ‘Satisfied’ with their health care situation. So what were we fixing? Obamacare is a nightmare. It interferes with health care distribution because it is an intrusive federal program.

TAC: You practiced medicine both in the public and the private sectors, first in the military and then in private practice. Did you see differences in quality?

Dr. Bob: Well sure. I’ll give you a couple stories.

When I was a head and neck cancer surgeon in Hawaii we had a receptionist, this very grouchy lady who was incapable of smiling, and she was the first person you met upon entering the office. I heard her chewing out a patient who was ten minutes late — a lady whose husband was out at sea, who had three children under the age of five, and she was sick and feverish. She was almost weeping. I admitted the patient. In Savannah, if our receptionists don’t have a smile they will hear about it immediately. Patients are customers, and they come to buy a service. In a socialized system, work is imposed and employees are ridden with an inflated sense of self-importance. Civil service employees can’t really be fired for being bad employees unless they commit a criminal act. I tried to fire several civilian employees in the military, never successfully.

Now I’m going to tell the story of Abbey and Juan. In 1991, I had just traveled to Latvia to teach disaster response in the Baltic states. While in Europe, I stopped over in London. I was sitting in an outdoor café drinking a latte and this 20 year-old British art student was sitting across from me. She was home from Leeds for the summer. And she had a tumor the size of a grapefruit in her neck. This student saw I was a doctor and asked if I would examine her neck, so I asked, “Well, have you seen your doctor?” She said, “For the first time in three months, I saw my general practitioner. He got me an appointment with a specialist.” I said, “Well, that’s wonderful. When is it?” “Six months,” she said. She would be dead by then, or dying.

Fast-forward eight years to my office in Pooler, Georgia. A nun from an outreach clinic that takes care of predominately Guatemalan and Mexican illegal immigrants brings in a Guatemalan man named Juan who didn’t speak English or Spanish very well — he spoke a Mayan dialect. Juan also had a tumor as big as a grapefruit in his neck. Four months later he was cured of cancer and hepatitis at the cost of our health care system, which had set out to work with his onion picking crew. Juan was in remission before Abbey even had a chance to see her primary care doctor. So while she was “enfranchised” in Great Britain’s health care system, he wasn’t even here legally in the country. We have such incredible compassion in this nation and such skill that we rarely let anyone fall through the cracks. You have to go out of your way as a sick person not to receive treatment if you are uninsured. So progressives are telling a lie that there is a crisis in health care.

The good news about Obamacare is this: I hope from its failure Americans learn that big government solutions just don’t work. That may be the silver lining of that particular dark cloud.

TAC: We have to hope so. Avik Roy, a scholar at the Manhattan Institute, predicts that Obamacare’s enrollment numbers are good enough that it will survive for the foreseeable future, which unfortunately means it will be a terrible health care bill indefinitely unless something is done about it. If you are elected to Congress, what will you do about Obamacare?

Dr. Bob: That’s a great question, and I’ve put a lot of thought into it. I’ll preface this by saying I’ve worked in every health care system imaginable, in both the public and private sectors. So that’s my background, and I can’t think of anyone better fit to sit down and write legislation to fix this mess. I’ll be the smart kid in the room.

So what would I do? I would absolutely repeal Obamacare at the first chance, given a new president and a takeover of the Senate by Republicans. You simply have to start over, which is a daunting task because Obamacare has already intruded into the private marketplace.

Rep. Tom Price [R-GA], who is an orthopedic surgeon out of Atlanta, has written an elegant bill, H.R. 2300, that I have studied closely and love. There are many Republican alternatives that have come out since 2009, so when Democrats and the president claim that Republicans don’t have an answer, they’re just lying. That’s a strong word, but in this case Rep. Joe Wilson [R-SC] is right.

I’ve talked about this some with [incumbent representative] Jack Kingston [R-GA], my good friend.

TAC: When’s he going to endorse you?

Dr. Bob: Oh, he’s never doing to do that. Generally when you’re running for another seat you don’t do that sort of thing. Politicians tend to be risk-averse in that way. But listen, as a doctor and Army Ranger I have taken many risks to get where I am. We need people in Congress who are willing to take political risks and do things that will surely get them voted out of office in two years. If we don’t have honest, stark and bold solutions soon, we will lose the Republic.

TAC: Certainly looks like it. I’ve seen the spreadsheets.

Dr. Bob: Yes. It’s not accurate to say we’re borrowing $4 billion a day from our children’s children because they haven’t been born yet. They can’t sign a contract saying, “Grandpa, I’m going to lend you this money to put on a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit at the Metropolitan, or a Buffalo Bill museum in Wyoming or a Gullah museum on Sapelo Island.” If I were king, we wouldn’t be borrowing money for frivolous things. It amounts to intergenerational theft, that $4 billion a day. Future generations will never have the opportunities we have unless we decide to tackle our debt now.

TAC: How do you go about that in the short term?

Dr. Bob: We need to start with a Balanced Budget Amendment, which exist in some form in nearly every state. In the amendment, I would stipulate that for dire emergencies — war or three Hurricane Katrinas at the same time — super-majorities in the House and Senate could borrow money temporarily, but it would need to be paid back within a finite period, three to five years.  And that number is not random. It represents the average length of time it took the government to pay back debts it incurred prior to FDR, when the spending curve really took off. The curve hyper-accelerated, sad to say, during Ronald Reagan’s terms, when taxes were lowered and social spending increased. Since then, the chart looks more and more like the vertical curve in an asymptotic function, which is frightening because that kind of trend has to collapse. And that’s why a Balanced Budget Amendment is necessary. Will it cause short-term pain? Yes. But better to absorb the pain in my generation than to pass it on to subsequent generations, hoping against hope that there will be a magical solution.

(Like what you see? Support THE ARCH CONSERVATIVE!)