Health Care Issues Hit Close to Home For Many Lawmakers

Rep. Dan Lipinski endures at least nine needle pricks a day to control the diabetes he's had since childhood. Rep. Joe Barton takes a half dozen prescription pills daily to ward off another heart attack. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry's little girl may need her fourth open-heart surgery in a few months.

Such personal details are spilling out in debates close to home for the lawmakers shaping policy on prescription drugs, stem cell research and more.

Most members of Congress are distant from the experience of earning minimum wage or having kids in a rundown school. But when it comes to health care, they bring their own aches and pains to the table.

Not always, however, in predictable ways.

Diabetes is considered one of the diseases that stem cell therapy might someday help.

But Lipinski, D-Ill., 40, stands in the minority in his party in opposing federal financing of embryonic stem cell research because, to him, moral qualms trump medical promise. He objects to the fact that embryos must be destroyed to get the stem cells and favors research on other types of stem cells, such as from umbilical cord blood and amniotic fluid.

"I desperately want to be cured of diabetes, and I want to see the suffering end for so many other people," said Lipinski, whose daily regimen includes four insulin injections and five drawings of blood. "But science continues to demonstrate we don't have to choose between advancing medical techniques and contentious life issues."

Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones used her 86-year-old father's bouts with Alzheimer's disease and dementia to support her case for embryonic stem cell research.

The Ohio Democrat, 57, said her father still recognizes her, but she remembered him as an active man who played golf and told her often that he was proud of her.

"I do get 'I love you,"' she said, "but I would have loved to have been able to see him be more of the Andrew Tubbs that I grew up with."

Lawmakers get generous health and drug benefits from the government, so their shared experience and empathy with the common citizen only go so far.

But they do have many stories to tell about what ails them, especially since Congress on the whole is getting older. The average age of senators is 61.8, the oldest ever, up from the historical average of 53.9, according to the Senate Historical Office. The House does not keep such statistics on its members.

Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., 70, had her right hip replaced just before Christmas. Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., who turned 74 on Saturday, has leukemia. Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., 60, is recovering from surgery to treat bleeding of the brain, his absence imperiling the slim Democratic majority.

In the House, Rep. Joe Baca, D-Calif., 60, suffered a heart attack last summer.

Ten days before Christmas 2005, Barton, R-Texas, had a heart attack during a budget meeting in the Capitol.

"Until that day, I had seldom had to take prescriptions drugs," said Barton, 57. "Since that day, I take five or six. I take a drug to lower my blood pressure. I take a drug to thin my blood. I take all kinds of drugs so that I don't have a repeat of the heart attack that I had 13 months ago."

Barton's point: He can empathize with those who need drugs.

Even so, he opposes efforts to require the government to negotiate Medicare drug prices. Barton says Medicare's drug program works and the government should leave well enough alone and let the market dictate pricing. Supporters say the requirement would lower drug costs.

Rep. Ric Keller, R-Fla., isn't buying that argument although a lot of elderly people live in his state and, at 42, he says he daily takes the prescription drug, Lipitor, because of high cholesterol.

He says three-fourths of Florida's elderly have signed up for the Medicare plan, adding: "If it ain't broke, why fix it?"

The Democratic-controlled House last month pushed through legislation to expand stem cell research and have the government negotiate prescription drugs under Medicare.

While both bills face uncertainty in the Senate, the debate in the House drew often on the personal experiences of lawmakers.

Fortenberry, R-Neb., offered that his 6-year-old daughter, Kathryn, has had three open-heart surgeries to treat atrial ventricular septal defect, a form of heart disease, and would need still more operations.

"We are probably looking at a fourth in the coming months, and in that surgery it is likely she will need a mechanical valve which further complicates her difficulties," he said.

Like many in his party, Fortenberry opposes research on embryonic stem cells. He said his spirits were lifted by a recent report on Swiss scientists who were beginning to grow children's heart valves from adult stem cells.

Rep. James Langevin, D-R.I., paralyzed from the chest down in an accidental shooting more than 25 years ago, said he always hoped there would someday be a cure for spinal cord injuries.

"It is only until now that the possibility of a cure has become truly real," said Langevin, 42, an abortion opponent who supports a type of research that ultimately destroys embryos.