When Dr. Raul Ruiz was 17 years old, he walked from business to business in southern California’s Coachella Valley asking for business owners to contribute to his college education. In exchange for their donations, he signed a contract with community members promising to come back and work as a doctor in his hometown.
Dr. Ruiz made good on his promise. He graduated from UCLA and then became the first Latino to hold three degrees from Harvard: an MD, an MPH and a Masters in Public Policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He completed his residency in Emergency Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh before returning to his hometown in 2007.
He now works as an emergency medicine physician at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, CA and is running for Congress against Rep. Mary Bono Mack, the Republican incumbent who took over the office after her husband, Sonny Bono, died in a skiing accident in 1998.
Born in Mexico and raised in Coachella, CA, where his parents worked as farmworkers, Dr. Ruiz saw the gaping needs in the community from a very young age. “We lived in a trailer for the first few years of my life, and that was considered a luxury – there were a lot of farmworkers who lived out of cardboard boxes to protect them from the heat,” he said.
Today, in the emergency department, he sees the fallout of the country’s economic crisis, in patients who have lost their jobs, insurance, and even their homes.
“A lot of students have come up to me in tears because they’ve had to defer their education to work and pay for their college education and help their family, and a lot of the seniors are really concerned about losing their quality of life and their health care,” Dr. Ruiz said. “And my father told me never to complain unless I’m going to be part of the solution, and I’m running for Congress to stand up for the people of this district, to make sure that they are taken care of.
“We have one of the worst crises in the state of California – not only in the inability of the residents to afford health care, but also in the lack of infrastructure and physicians to take care of them. We have one doctor per 9,000 residents in our underserved areas, and the medically-appropriate ratio according to HHS is one to 2,000 residents,” he said. He founded the Coachella Valley Health Initiative to address the problem, as well as a pre-med mentorship program for students from underserved communities who want to become doctors.
Dr. Ruiz is using his campaign as an opportunity to highlight the importance of Medicare and Medi-Cal (California’s Medicaid system) in his community.
“One of the starkest issues in this election is the ‘Ryan plan’ and the fact that Bono Mack has voted twice to turn Medicare into a coupon-like voucher system which would eliminate the guarantees of Medicare and essentially put the burden of healthcare costs on the shoulders of our seniors.
“The way we’re going to save Medicare is by prioritizing our seniors, not health insurance companies, and by decreasing overall healthcare costs,” Dr. Ruiz said.
He also stressed that caring for patients means addressing the factors that are preventing them from being healthy, from jobs to housing to education.
“First and foremost, we want to take care of our patients, but in order to take care of patients, we need to also address the social context in which they live . . . . That is why we need to get out of our comfort zone and go beyond the exam room and into the community and start addressing those other social determinants of health by being community advocates and taking on leadership positions in the community,” he stressed.
The 113th Congress Could See Increase of Physicians in Office
With health care representing more than 15% of the U.S. gross domestic product and healthcare reform taking center stage in politics, it’s not surprising that more physicians are stepping up to run for elected office. This election season:
- 28 doctors are running in legislative races—17 incumbents and 11 hopefuls.
- Among those already holding office, 18 of 20 are Republican. Seven of this year’s challengers are running on Democratic tickets.
- Physicians in the 112th Congress largely represent districts in the south and west of the U.S.
- As medical practitioners, they tend to hail from Ob-Gyn and other surgical specialties; there are also three family physicians, one anesthesiologist, one psychiatrist, and one emergency doctor.