Lawmaker physicians offer different medical, political views

Jim Provance, The Blade, Toledo, Ohio
·7 min read

Apr. 12—COLUMBUS — For the first time in its history, the Ohio General Assembly counts among its members three practicing physicians.

This occurred as Ohio and the rest of the globe faced a pandemic in which medical advice has been dished out on an almost daily basis side by side with government policy.

"For all three of us, it comes down to science," said state Sen. Stephen Huffman (R., Tipp City), an emergency room physician. "As a physician, you're a scientist. That's what you do."

But while these doctors may bring with them their science, clinical training, and professional experiences, they have not been lockstep in how they have voted when it comes to the state's legislative response to the virus.

"It's unfortunate that the current coronavirus has been politicized," said state Rep. Beth Liston (D., Dublin), a physician who has seen coronavirus patients in her practice at two Columbus hospitals. "It should be about science. There are other places that haven't been politicized where we can certainly work together."

In 2011, Dr. Terry Johnson, an osteopathic doctor and former Scioto County coroner, is believed to have become the first practicing physician to serve in the General Assembly after being elected to the Ohio House of Representatives.

He joined state politics just as Ohio was confronting its escalating opioid addiction problem and the proliferation of so-called pill mills, particularly in southern Ohio and his home county. He is director of Medically Assisted Treatment and Integrated Health Services at Valley View Health Centers in Waverly.

Dr. Huffman — a graduate of the Medical College of Ohio, now the University of Toledo College of Medicine and Life Sciences — joined him in the House in 2015 to represent a Dayton-area rural and suburban district. He soon made his mark as sponsor of the law that legalized medical marijuana.

In 2019, he moved to the Ohio Senate, becoming the first physician to serve there. Term limits forced Dr. Johnson from the House at the start of 2019, but he soon rejoined Dr. Huffman when he was appointed to a Senate vacancy.

Also in 2019, Dr. Liston became the first Democratic physician to be elected to the General Assembly, handing policy votes to practicing physicians in both chambers and on both sides of the political aisle.

Then, on March 9, 2020, Ohio saw its first known case of coronavirus, followed 11 days later with its first known coronavirus death. A year later, Ohio has experienced more than 1 million cases and nearly 19,000 deaths.

Ohioans turned to daily briefings from Gov. Mike DeWine and his health director at the time, Dr. Amy Acton, for information. Lawmakers turned to their physician colleagues in caucus with questions as the executive branch issued orders to shutter schools, close primary election polling places hours before they were to open, and close most businesses to prevent spread of the virus.

"It just seems coincidental," Dr. Huffman said. "...I guess, like with any medical topic, the people in the Senate looked to me for direction and advice, the same way I look to Bob Hackett as an insurance guy and Bob Peterson as a farmer....

"We weren't given a lot of things to do," he said. "The governor made a lot of plans. In caucus, myself and Dr. Johnson, we would be asked whether this makes sense."

Dr. Liston said the Democratic caucus also sought her insight as someone who not only practices medicine but was also among those treating coronavirus early on when it was still in many ways an unknown.

"My role is to be a resource to those working to represent their districts, who turned to me for my ability to explain it and what I know and didn't know," she said. "People definitely looked to me to do that."

And then she found herself on the House floor, the sole physician voice in the chamber, speaking out against multiple Republican-backed bills designed to curb the powers of state and local health departments to quarantine and issue emergency orders for extended periods.

In some cases, Dr. Liston found herself speaking out against bills supported by her fellow physicians in the Senate. Some were sponsored by Dr. Johnson.

"It should not happen," she said. "I do think that science should inform policy, but there is a role for policy in weighing that information. My approach is to make sure everyone has information and that information is correct."

Dr. Johnson, along with state Sen. Rob McColley (R., Napoleon), sponsored Senate Bill 22, the measure Mr. DeWine recently vetoed. Among other things, it will put expiration dates on emergency health orders issued by him and future governors and health directors and allow lawmakers to step in to terminate those it doesn't like.

Both the Senate and House overrode Mr. DeWine's veto, a first in his three years in office.

Dr. Johnson did not respond to requests for an interview for this story but he said on the Senate floor the day of the override that science helped to drive his thinking.

"What's science?" he said. "What's not science? Opinion's not science. Emotion's not science. Scientific method is remarkably simple, and it guides the remarkable world that we live in today.

"...Politics are involved in this, too," Dr. Johnson said. "And you may notice that this great divide, this great diversity of opinion we have, is pretty much along party lines. That's not a coincidence. That's not science."

And he insisted the vote was about restoring balance in government, not an attack on Mr. DeWine, a member of his own party.

"You don't see me doing interviews with papers all over the state decrying his actions," he said. "I've turned down I can't tell you how many interviews. I've kept my focus on the work."

The difference of opinion on medical policy has not been limited to the coronavirus.

"Terry Johnson and I don't see eye to eye on medical marijuana," Dr. Huffman said. "He practices addictive medicine. He sees medical marijuana as a kind of a gateway. There are no hard feelings. That's his feeling and what he sees in his practice."

Dr. Huffman, however, was a chief sponsor of the law enacted in 2016 that legalized the use of marijuana in Ohio for the first time for medical use only. The law set up a system through which product is grown, processed, tested, and sold at every point by a state-licensed and regulated entity.

He said it was only a matter of time before a medical-only proposal have made its way to the ballot, so lawmakers had to get out in front of it.

Dr. Huffman plans to soon revisit Ohio's medical marijuana law to clean up regulatory issues that have come up in the state's implementation of it.

His dual roles of physician and lawmaker also put him at the center of a social media firestorm last year over a question he asked during a committee hearing about hygiene and the spread of coronavirus among minorities. He later apologized, but the question cost him his job as an emergency room physician with TeamHealth.

"I'm doing alright," he said. "My employer made a political statement. I do what I do. I practice medicine. I take care of people with COVID-19 and other conditions. I'm planning my 15th trip to Central America to help people of color. I've spent 18 months overseas treating people of color and the underserved. I will continue to do that."

The controversy did not prevent him from being named chairman of the Senate Health Committee this session by Senate President Matt Huffman (R., Lima), his cousin.

Dr. Liston said she takes the opportunity to speak to her fellow physicians about the importance of health policy alongside the practice of medicine and to encourage her colleagues to consider running for office. She points to how health is affected by everything from housing and lead-based paint to access to affordable prescription drugs and child care.

"Getting involved in policy is the next step," she said. "I hope more physicians get involved and work to educate those in health care about the importance of doing so. It's a natural step that I hope to continue, and the pandemic highlights that even more."

First Published April 12, 2021, 8:00am