Arizona Trauma Surgeon Launches Bid for Congress

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Randall Friese, MD, has an unusual item on his resumé in his bid for a congressional seat in Arizona, which he announced on March 25: He was the trauma surgeon on duty on Jan. 8, 2011, when former congresswoman Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.) was transported to the emergency department after being shot — along with 18 others — during a “meet the constituents” event at a supermarket parking lot.

“I was involved with her care and with several other mass casualty patients” that day, Friese, 56, told MedPage Today by telephone (a press liaison was also on the line). “I didn’t immediately go from that experience to running for office, but I always felt that being a trauma surgeon was community service — I had to work weekends and 24-hour shifts and holidays, and spend time away from my family.”

Friese, a Democrat, is running for the House seat representing the state’s 2nd District, which includes parts of the city of Tucson and borders both Mexico and New Mexico. But he started his life’s journey a little farther east — born and raised in the Baltimore suburbs, where he attended public schools and got his undergraduate degree in biochemistry at the University of Maryland, in College Park. He followed that with a medical degree from the University of Maryland at Baltimore, and began his westward trek in 1990 to attend a surgery residency in Denver.

After that, he decided to join the military, and went into the Navy, which sent him to Okinawa, Japan, for 2 years. “I was assigned to the U.S.S. Belleau Wood there with carrier jets and helicopters … We had 4,000 people on board.”

That was followed by 2 years at Camp Pendleton in San Diego as a surgeon at the Marine Corps base, and then Friese went to the University of Texas Southwest Medical Center, eventually becoming an assistant professor at Parkland Hospital.

In 2008, Friese and his wife moved to Tucson, where he joined the faculty at the University of Arizona.

His first foray into politics was being elected to the Arizona state legislature in 2014; he is now in his fourth term as a state representative and will be “termed out” of the legislature after his current term ends due to state term limit laws.

Healthcare reform is one of Friese’s chief concerns. “I certainly support expanding access to health insurance, and quality healthcare for everyone,” he said. “Universal healthcare is a goal I wish to get to. How we get there and how quickly is certainly up to the appetite of Congress.”

Friese supports Medicare of All, but “it might mean we have to go through a ‘public option’ road to get there in a gradual, stepwise manner,” he said. “Expanding healthcare and making sure everyone has access to quality healthcare is an important goal for me as a physician.”

He said that some of his efforts at expanding healthcare in his state have resulted in frustration: “Multiple times we have tried to get Republicans to expand CHIP [the Children’s Health Insurance Program] in Arizona … but we haven’t been able to get the majority to join us” since 2016, when they agreed to “unfreeze” enrollment, he said.

“We unfroze it, allowing new enrollment, but the [income] cap is 200% of the federal poverty level. Just this past session, we tried to increase it to 250% of the federal poverty level — which would be more in line with other states — but we were unable to get the Republicans to join us in that effort,” he said.

Friese and his colleagues have had a little more success with getting some of the physician “hassle factor” reduced in the state’s Medicaid program. “We’ve addressed some of the paperwork, universal approval forms, things like that,” he said. “I do think we should be making it easier for physicians to deliver healthcare; that’s what they’re trained to do. You shouldn’t have to be an administrator and a doctor.”

As far as medical education is concerned, GME slots “should be revisited,” said Friese. Lots of East Coast states have more GME slots because they were the bigger states at first, with larger populations. “Now we have population growth in Arizona…. One of the big things about training a doctor in your area is that they tend to stay there afterwards.”

Friese also supports loan forgiveness programs to help medical students with high levels of debt: “I think programs like that have great benefit,” he said.

Responsible gun ownership is another issue of interest. “Clearly, as a trauma surgeon — as someone who takes care of injured patients — gun safety and responsible gun ownership is an important part of the message I would carry in my campaign,” he said, adding: “We need to be reasonable about how we get there — I don’t know if we can go straight to a comprehensive background check system. It’s a multifaceted problem and requires a multifaceted solution.”

That should include laws requiring safe gun storage, Friese said. “You have to be accountable if a child gets hold of a weapon and harms themselves or someone else.”

What lessons should the country learn from the pandemic? “We need to be better prepared next time,” he said. “I think the supply chain is something to look at. We were low on PPE [personal protective equipment] early on; is there some way we can address that better? Is there something we can do with a more central supply chain through the government?”

Hospital capacity is another important issue, he said. “We should be making sure hospitals have surge capacity. Should we have looked more closely at stopping normal operations a little sooner?”

And there is one other important thing, Friese said: “the importance of listening to the scientists and the specialists at CDC. We had a lot of mixed messaging” that started people off on the wrong foot.

He added that he would like to see members of Congress work together better. “I’d like to see Congress work like it’s supposed to work,” Friese said. “We should be able to recognize that there are places where we have agreement and places where we don’t. Compromise and negotiation is not a bad thing.”

Are you a health professional running for national office, or do you know of such a person? We’d like to hear about it! Please email us so we can get in touch.

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    Joyce Frieden oversees MedPage Today’s Washington coverage, including stories about Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, healthcare trade associations, and federal agencies. She has 35 years of experience covering health policy. Follow

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