DO in the House

U.S. Rep. Joe Heck, DO, leverages his emergency medicine skills in Congress

Medical, veterans, district issues drive Nevada’s first-term congressman: “I read every bill and never miss a vote.”


Every time he flies into Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport after spending the weekend with his family, U.S. Rep. Joe Heck, DO, R-Nev., gets goose bumps, exhilarated that he is helping to shape U.S. policy. “Especially when I arrive at night, when the Washington, D.C., skyline is all lit up, I think to myself what an incredible country we have,” says Dr. Heck, who is serving his first term in Congress.

Though lacking the naïveté of Sen. Jefferson Smith, played by James Stewart in the film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Dr. Heck has as much idealism and determination as the fictional senator. “I read every bill and never miss a vote,” says the osteopathic emergency physician from Henderson, Nev.

Dr. Heck, who served in the Nevada State Senate from 2004 to 2008, has been described in the Las Vegas Sun as “focused and serious.” He is also warm, friendly and considerate, say members of his congressional staff. Colleagues in the osteopathic medical profession compliment Dr. Heck for professionalism, hard work and courteousness toward those with whom he disagrees.

Besides his responsibility to represent Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District, Dr. Heck considers the economy, health care, national defense and homeland security to be his priorities. His
website highlights some of his positions:

  • “Cut the spending and grow the economy,” Dr. Heck emphasizes in a YouTube video clip of a speech he made supporting budget reductions proposed by his party.
  • The former owner of a small homeland security consulting firm, he favors reducing the tax burden on businesses to stimulate job creation.
  • Voting with other House Republicans to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, Dr. Heck would like to replace the health reform law with legislation that would enact meaningful tort reform and move the United States away from employer-provided health insurance and toward a system incentivizing individuals to purchase their own coverage.
  • A colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, he is committed to making sure that military and national security operations are sufficiently funded.

A fiscally conservative Republican, Dr. Heck tends to vote along party lines, but he doesn’t always do so. “I don’t claim to have party loyalty,” he says with a grin. “When I make a decision on how I’m going to vote on a bill, I think about how the legislation would affect my family. I vote with the interests of District 3 in mind.”

Because his district has the highest foreclosure rate in the country, he was the lone Republican to vote against a bill to end an underused federal program that assists people in refinancing homes that have plummeted in value. “This program helps people who are doing the right thing; they are current in their mortgages but just trying to get lower payments,” Dr. Heck explains.

All in a day’s work

On April 7, with Congress in the midst of intense budget negotiations and a possible government shutdown looming, Dr. Heck delivered the keynote address during the breakfast briefing of the AOA’s DO Day on Capitol Hill. “We have to become better advocates for our profession and, most important, our patients,” he stressed, urging the 600-plus DOs, osteopathic medical students and friends of the profession in his audience to become more involved in the political process at the federal and state levels, whether by directly supporting candidates for office or running for office themselves.

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The only osteopathic physician to be elected to Congress since Ira W. Drew, DO, D-Pa., served in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1937-39, Dr. Heck recounted to DO Day participants that his decision to run for the House was due in part to his frustration that lawyers rather than physicians formulate federal health care policy. He asserted that the health reform law he voted to repeal places undue burdens on small business owners, including physicians in private practice, and that it contains many irrelevant and extravagant provisions that will dramatically increase the cost of health care.

Acknowledging that he favors certain insurance reforms in the health care law, such as eliminating lifetime limits and preventing the cancellation of policies when beneficiaries become sick, Dr. Heck stated, “We need to repair the things that have some merit but just need to be tweaked to make them better. And we need to replace those things that we know don’t work—like alternative dispute resolution [for medical liability reform]—with things that we know will work.”

After concluding his speech to DO Day participants, Dr. Heck returned to Capitol Hill for a typical day of committee meetings, hearings and informal meetings with constituents punctuated by votes on the House floor.

“The hectic pace here is very similar to that of a large inner-city emergency department,” Dr. Heck observes later that day in his office in the Cannon House Office Building. “You don’t know what’s coming through the door next. And just like when you’re triaging patients, you’ve got to prioritize what you are hoping to accomplish each day.”

Although used to being on his feet as an emergency physician and Army reservist, the fit 49-year-old Dr. Heck admits that he was not fully prepared for the speed and endurance requirements of his new job. “I probably spend a third of my day walking between buildings, going back and forth,” he says. “I am constantly coming back here to pick something up, going to committees, going to the House floor. If I’m in my office and a 15-minute vote is called, I have to walk very quickly to get there in time.”

But some of the pressure on Dr. Heck is self-imposed, borne out of his desire to do the job right. “Joe Heck is one of the most motivated members of Congress,” observes legislative aide Ryan McBride. “He is always in motion. It can be a challenge to keep up.”

Because he is frequently on the go, Dr. Heck relies heavily on his smart phone to communicate with his six-person staff. He also uses his phone to post Twitter messages, having sent out more than 100 tweets, many linking to video clips, since his term began. “He is very technologically savvy,” notes Darren Littell, Dr. Heck’s press secretary.

A 1988 graduate of the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, Dr. Heck also draws on learning strategies he honed in medical school to cope with the demands of serving in Congress. “During medical school, we’re taught to consume and digest large volumes of information in a short period of time,” Dr. Heck explains. “This background makes it easier for me to read all of the bills, especially when they are posted just three days before a vote.”

Sleeping in his office to save money, as The Wall Street Journal reported he would, Dr. Heck begins work by 7:30 a.m. and is often still working at 9 p.m., Littell says. Despite the long hours and frenzied environment of Congress, Dr. Heck remains gracious to everyone, the press secretary notes. “Joe is always smiling infectiously, happy to be here,” Littell says. “He is a genuinely nice guy who is in Congress for the right reasons.”

The right stuff

Dr. Heck’s pride in being an osteopathic physician is evident in the nameplate outside of 132 Cannon: “Representative Joe Heck, DO—Nevada” reads the plaque, which is next to an American flag.

As he forms close alliances with many of the 16 MDs in the House, Dr. Heck isn’t constantly proclaiming the DO difference to his congressional peers, though he eagerly will explain what a DO is to anyone who asks. And as he told The DO while a Nevada state senator, Dr. Heck is vigilant in ensuring that the osteopathic medical profession is not overlooked in health care legislation.

Dr. Heck’s views aren’t all in accord with those of the AOA or the Nevada Osteopathic Medical Association (NOMA). But he embodies osteopathic principles in his relationships with others and his thorough approach to solving problems, several members of the osteopathic medical profession have observed.

AOA Trustee John W. Becher, DO, who served as Dr. Heck’s residency program director at Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia, remembers Dr. Heck as being conscientious and caring—characteristics nurtured during his osteopathic medical training that are serving him well today. “As a resident, Joe Heck had good interpersonal skills and was never one to create conflict,” Dr. Becher recalls. “He always kept an even disposition, never demonstrating anger. That’s a good trait for an emergency physician and for a member of Congress.”

In the Nevada Senate, Dr. Heck “was a pleasure to work with,” says Denise Selleck Davis, NOMA’s executive director. “Although we did not always agree on policy issues or details, he respectfully listened to the views of NOMA’s leaders,” she says. “He took the time to research issues of concern before meeting with NOMA representatives and was ready to discuss any bill or policy in question. His habit of ‘doing his homework’ is greatly respected, as is his intelligence and willingness to work through differences.”

Dr. Heck “brings a scholarly approach to his work,” adds Robert Kessler, DO, NOMA’s immediate past president. “Even though we are on opposite sides of the political spectrum, I know that Joe always studies the issue, not just the talking points,” Dr. Kessler says. “We can have a gentlemanly discussion about those things we disagree on. I can’t tell you how rare and refreshing this is.”

The president of the Nevada Orthopaedic Society, Fred C. Redfern, MD, of Henderson has only praise for the freshman congressional member, whom he describes as a champion of medical liability reform.

On Capitol Hill, fellow lawmakers have been quick to recognize Dr. Heck’s potential, notes Littell, who uses the phrase “quiet leader” to describe his boss. As Littell observes, “Joe doesn’t speak out a lot. But when he does speak, people listen. He isn’t here to be a pop star. He wants to fix problems.”

For a freshman member of Congress, Dr. Heck has secured high-profile committee appointments. Besides being named to the House Armed Services Committee and the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which oversees health care concerns, he was appointed by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to serve on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Dr. Heck, who has a master’s degree in strategic studies from the Army War College in Carlisle Barracks, Pa., attributes these assignments to his military, as well as medical, credentials.

Most significant, Dr. Heck was tapped to chair the House Subcommittee on Technical and Tactical Intelligence, an unusual honor for a freshman representative. “Again, this goes back to my being a doctor and knowing science,” Dr. Heck says. During a briefing in which a technical expert was explaining how to calculate satellite resonance, Dr. Heck impressed his peers when he demonstrated that he already knew the formula. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., the chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, told him, “ ‘Joe, obviously you have a knack for this kind of stuff. The rest of us sat there with glazed eyes,’ ” Dr. Heck recounts. “And the next thing I knew I was chairing the subcommittee.”

Here to there

Dr. Heck, who grew up in Pennsylvania, attended The Pennsylvania State University in University Park, earning a bachelor’s degree in health education in 1984. After attending PCOM and completing his emergency medicine residency in 1992, he moved to southern Nevada. While he knew at a fairly young age that he wanted to be a physician, it wasn’t until the late 1990s that he contemplated running for elective office.

Working in the D.C. area between 1998 and 2002, Dr. Heck “got the bug,” as he describes it. Helping to develop policy for the Department of Defense, he learned quickly that once policy passed out of his hands, it seldom resembled what he had worked on. “That’s when I starting thinking that maybe it would be better to carry the football into the end zone rather than just handing it off,” Dr. Heck says.

In 2004, Dr. Heck saw his first opportunity to be a viable political candidate and challenged a 20-year incumbent for a seat in the Nevada Senate. Dr. Heck attributed his win to his broad credentials, hard work and excellent advice—factors that also helped him in his race for the U.S. House. Although touchdowns are harder to make in D.C. than in Carson City, Nev., Dr. Heck is elated be a critical new player on the congressional team.

Dr. Heck says he is working to draft health care legislation that would provide stability for people who have health insurance and options for people who don’t, while controlling health care costs. Another pet project is a bill that would make it more difficult for Congress to develop “duplicative programs.” He also is sponsoring a bill pertaining to hydroelectric power from the Hoover Dam, and he is co-sponsoring a lot of legislation on veterans’ issues.

Four months into his term, Dr. Heck has decided he will run for re-election in 2012. Beyond that, he isn’t sure of his political plans.

Noting that he is still taking care of patients “but from a different perspective,” Dr. Heck admits that he misses clinical care. He hopes in the near future to work occasional weekend shifts in the emergency department at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. But he still plans to spend most weekends in Henderson with his wife, Lisa, and their three children, Chelsea, Monica and Joseph.

Dr. Heck’s family has learned to cope with his absences. “As my wife would say, things run fine when I’m not there, but they get screwed up when I’m home on the weekends,” he quips.

However, his new job has been hard on his 14-year-old son, with whom Dr. Heck is very close. “But we interact every day, and I correct his homework over the Internet,” Dr. Heck says. In addition, he is back with his family during the House’s “constituent work weeks,” which allow him to spend a few days in his district every month or so.

All worthwhile goals require sacrifice, Dr. Heck notes. “Unfortunately, it is the family that often sacrifices more than the person doing the job,” he observes.

In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the fictional Sen. Smith gazes in wonder at the Lincoln Memorial and other monuments to his revered heroes, all of whom made personal sacrifices for the United States. Dr. Heck draws similar inspiration from the National Mall’s veterans memorials. “Whenever I feel that things are getting overwhelming, I go to the World War II Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial,” he says. “The folks represented by these memorials are the people I’m most in awe of. They gave us the opportunity to be the country that we are, the reason I am so proud to serve in Congress.”

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