Conspiracies And ‘Witch Doctor’ Obama: Tom Price’s Ties To The Medical Fringe

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President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Health and Human Services is a member of a far-right medical group that peddles conspiracy theories, and has ties to an anti-health care reform activist infamous for sharing a racist image of President Obama on a Tea Party email listserv.

Rep. Tom Price (R-GA), an orthopedic surgeon, has been repeatedly touted as a member of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS). AAPS, established in 1943, aims “to fight socialized medicine and to fight the government takeover of medicine” and in its statement of principles urges members to refuse to treat Medicare patients, reasoning government involvement in healthcare is “evil” and “immoral.” The group also rejects required vaccination programs in schools.

The group’s publication, the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, also has publicized a variety of dubious or debunked medical theories over the years. One 2005 article in AAPS’ journal advocated for rescinding the citizenship of so-called “anchor babies,” or the children of undocumented immigrants, who it claimed were responsible for increased leprosy rates. Other articles pushed the myth of a link between vaccines and autism, suggested a link between abortion and breast cancer, and questioned the relationship between HIV and AIDS. The group also once urged the U.S. Supreme Court to release post-mortem photos of Vince Foster, the Bill Clinton White House counsel whose suicide conspiracy theorists believe actually was an assassination. An article separately posted on AAPS’ website even speculated that President Obama’s oratory could in fact be a form of hypnosis, suggesting that he won the presidency by hypnotizing impressionable voters like young people and Jews.

The group’s executive director, Dr. Jane Orient, on Thursday declined to verify Price’s membership in an email and referred TPM to Price’s office. However, Orient confirmed to Stat News that Price’s membership was indeed current.

In a subsequent email, Orient said that AAPS was “very pleased to hear” that Price was Trump’s pick to lead HHS.

“[W]e agree with him on the need for patient choice and the adverse effects of ObamaCare. We think that as a physician he has first-hand knowledge of the consequences of third-party intrusion into the patient-physician relationship,” she wrote.

A spokesman for Price did not respond Thursday to TPM’s request for comment about the extent of his involvement with AAPS.

Price has been listed as a speaker at several past AAPS events, particularly when the group was a leading opponent of the Affordable Care Act in 2009 (Dr. Orient confirmed in an email that Price had spoken at at least one AAPS meeting—“I think in 2009”—and that “attendees were favorably impressed with him”). In turn, the group appeared to seize on Price’s position as a member of Congress to bolster its own image.

In March 2009, the AAPS published an angry press release responding to its exclusion from a White House health care summit.

“It’s interesting that reporters just assumed the nation’s only professional association of doctors in private practice would be asked to the dance. But apparently we didn’t make the cut,” the press release read. “They could have asked Rep. Tom Price, M.D., one of the few physician Members of Congress. But no!”

Another press release advertising a June 2009 virtual town hall, which listed Price as a confirmed speaker, featured the headline: “Doctors to Obama: ‘We’ll Quit Before We Practice Government Medicine.'” For that engagement, Price crossed paths with Dr. David McKalip, a vocal critic of Obamacare who reduced his public profile fighting the health care law after sharing a racist image of President Barack Obama. In the online town hall, McKalip warned of “a government takeover of medicine.”

An anti-health care reform group founded by McKalip, Doctors for Patient Freedom, also gave Price its Ed Annis Medical Freedom Award in 2009. It’s not clear to what lengths Price went to accept it, however. When McKalip’s group first announced that he would be honored, Price’s office indicated the congressman himself would not travel to receive the award and did not make clear whether a representative would go in Price’s place.

A 2013 press release from McKalip also named Price as an award presenter for a Doctors for Patient Freedom event. The group announced it would honor Dr. Ben Carson with the same award, and that Price would introduce Carson and present him the award at a November ceremony in Maryland. Available press reports on the event do not mention whether Price actually was in attendance.

When reached by email Thursday, McKalip responded that he was out of town.

Above: A photoshopped image of President Obama as a witch doctor that Dr. David McKalip circulated on a Tea Party listserv in 2009.

McKalip had infamously shared an image of Obama photoshopped onto a man wearing tribal gear, labeled Obamacare, with a Tea Party listserv in 2009. He initially defended his decision to share the image, telling TPM at the time that the person who created the image “was expressing concerns that the health-care proposals [made by President Obama] would make the quality of medical care worse in our country.” He later apologized to Obama for sharing the image and said he would no longer make public appearances voicing his opposition to Obamacare.

But just a couple months later, McKalip sent an email to Tea Party activists reporting back from an AAPS meeting. McKalip wrote that he “spent time” at that meeting with “freedom fighters for health system reform,” including Price.

This post has been updated.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Matt Shuham is a news writer for TPM. He was previously assistant editor of The National Memo and managing editor of the Harvard Political Review. He is available by email at mshuham@talkingpointsmemo.com and on Twitter @mattshuham.
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