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Thursday, July 11, 2024

Mitch McConnell’s health episodes draw attention to obscure but influential Capitol Hill doctor

“In my case, it saved my life,” Rep. Dan Kildee, Democrat of Michigan, recalled. Kildee emphasized the word “saved.”

Kildee was sufficiently uncomfortable and concerned earlier this year to call for an appointment at Congress’ Office of the Attending Physician, a nondescript suite on the first floor of the Capitol.

“It allowed me to have something relatively routine checked out,” Kildee told CBS News, rather than waiting to see his own doctor at home, in Michigan.

The suite is tucked behind an unremarkable entrance amid the marble and statues of the first floor of the Capitol. Doctors and nurses provide medical check-ups, consultations and emergency care to members of Congress and the justices of the Supreme Court.

Kildee was referred to specialists at George Washington University Hospital, where he was diagnosed and treated for throat cancer.

After a grueling surgery and recovery, Kildee is now cancer-free.

But Kildee still wonders what could’ve happened without the care he received at the Capitol.

Members of Congress are notoriously overbooked and overscheduled. Without the ability to see a doctor conveniently and quickly at the Capitol, Kildee said he and others might delay seeking medical consultations.

The Office of Attending Physician, which received a $4 million appropriation of taxpayer money this year, has nearly 50 employees, responds to medical emergencies, takes appointments, doles out vaccines and is led by a presidential appointee.

But since its founding in 1928, the office has existed in unique obscurity — until last month.

Brian Monahan, who has served as attending physician since 2009, wrote a pair of medical updates this summer on Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, after McConnell had suffered two mysterious episodes during public remarks since July.

Both times, McConnell suddenly stopped speaking and stared blankly for several seconds, while he was addressing cameras and reporters. A colleague intervened each time to check on McConnell’s well being and to give him a moment to recover and resume his news conferences. The incidents raised questions about McConnell’s health, his recovery from a concussion in March and his ability to continue serving as a Senate leader.

Responding to concerns and questions about McConnell’s health and ability to perform his duties, the senator’s staff released Monahan’s written medical summaries, which stated that McConnell was not showing signs of suffering seizure disorders, stroke or Parkinson’s disease. Monahan’s reports also said the Office of Attending Physician cleared McConnell to continue working.

Monahan’s office didn’t return multiple requests from CBS News for comment about the office’s operations or its review of McConnell’s health. But a CBS News review of congressional records and interviews with a dozen members of Congress and staffers shows the attending physician now has a uniquely broad variety of responsibilities, ranging from emergency medical care, to vaccinations, to food service inspections, to travel screenings.

The office charges an annual fee for its services. An internal agency website listed it at $646.32 in 2022.

The Congressional Research Service summarizes the role of the Office of Attending Physician with a sweeping, though simple description: “The OAP is responsible for providing emergency medical assistance to Members of Congress, Justices of the Supreme Court, congressional staff, and the millions of visitors to the Capitol each year.”

As is the case with so many components and offices of Congress, the Attending Physician hasn’t escaped the Capitol’s many political controversies and scrutiny.

“Without him, we would just never get things checked out”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, refers to Monahan with the nickname “Doc.”

Blumenthal, who broke his leg in April during a parade in Connecticut, said Monahan helped him get access to a wheelchair and crutches to move about the Capitol during recovery. Blumenthal told CBS News, “Doc Monahan facilitated the healthcare. They’re not orthopedists, but they were conduits to the care.”

“Doctor Monahan is great to have conversations with,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, Democrat of Maryland. said Monahan is “great to have conversations with,” and he’s spoken with him “about some of the challenges that we’ve had.”

The Office of Attending Physician has suites and spaces in the Capitol, the Rayburn House Office Building and in other House and Senate office buildings. In a written report earlier this year, Monahan said his “staff are accessible 24 hours a day, 365 days per year. In-person medical visits are available to members whenever the House or Senate is in session and during business hours when out of session.” The medical staff also offers travel assessments and consultations for congressional delegations making overseas trips, according to multiple staffers who spoke with CBS News.

Kildee said the hectic travel schedule and the need to attend votes in person make it challenging to arrange off-campus or hometown medical appointments. He told CBS News, “Without him, we would just never get things checked out.”

Kildee says Monahan regularly follows up to check on his health post-surgery.

“Since Dr. Monahan is an oncologist by training, he took a more serious and active role in monitoring my case,” Kildee said.

Monahan, who received his medical degree from Georgetown, also has a backgroundand certification in oncology and continues to train oncologists through his ongoing work at the National Cancer Institute. Kildee said this is helpful to other members who experience cancer diagnoses and treatments while serving in Congress. Sen Bob Casey, Democrat of Pennsylvania, who underwent prostate cancer surgery earlier this year, told CBS News he has also received medical guidance and assistance from the Attending Physician’s office.

The staff includes civilian and military personnel overseen by Monahan, who also holds the rank of U.S. Navy rear admiral.

In March, Monahan told the House Committee on House Administration his team includes an emergency physician certified in trauma services. He said his office also “provides medical care for large special events, such as the State of the Union Address and Presidential Inauguration, Joint Sessions of Congress, large scale ceremonies, Member retreats and conventions.”

Monahan told the panel’s chairman, Rep. Barry Loudermilk, Republican of Georgia, his office also offers physical therapy programs and is seeking to restore chiropractic services too.

“There is lingering frustration from folks”

McConnell’s recent “freeze-up” incidents further raised the profile of Monahan’s largely unknown office. Monahan’s written reports about McConnell’s health, which McConnell’s staff publicly released, have drawn criticism from McConnell’s colleague Sen. Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky.

Monahan’s Sept. 5 letter to McConnell said, “There is no evidence that you have a seizure disorder or that you experienced a stroke, TIA or movement disorder such as Parkinson’s disease.”

In an Aug. 30 letter to McConnell, later released by McConnell’s office, Monahan wrote, “Occasional lightheadedness is not uncommon in concussion recovery and can also be expected as a result of dehydration.”

Paul, an ophthalmologist, questioned Monahan’s attribution of the episodes to possible dehydration. Speaking to reporters last week, Paul said, “With my medical background, this is not dehydration. There’s something else going on.” Paul added, “To me, it looks like a focal neurologic event. That doesn’t mean it’s incapacitating. It doesn’t mean you can’t serve, but it means that somebody ought to wake up and say, ‘Wow, this looks like a seizure.'”

Monahan has also attracted some mixed reviews from Republicans. Sen. Thom Tillis, Republican of North Carolina, said, “He is absolutely looking out for the health and wellness of every member, but then referenced concerns about Monahan’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and Capitol protocols.

The COVID mandates ordered by House leadership in 2020 and 2021, then under Democratic control, caused friction between the two parties.

Monahan advised congressional leaders about protocols to undertake to slow the spread of coronavirus, in concert with FDA guidelines, he said. But when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ordered a mask mandate on the House floor, some Republicans bristled and noted that Senate Democratic leaders did not require masking in the Senate chamber.

Monahan continued to face scrutiny over the COVID restrictions at the Capitol during the March hearing in the House Committee on Administration.

“There is lingering frustration from folks,” Chairman Rep. Bryan Steil, Republican of Wisconsin, told Monahan in reference to the different masking policies in the House and Senate.

Monahan responded to a question from committee Republicans about those disparities by saying House leaders — and their stricter rules — were closer to the preferred CDC guidelines.

Paul also criticized Monahan for issuing guidance that led to a requirement for COVID vaccinations for U.S. Senate pages.

Many in the House have encouraged Monahan to expand the services offered by his office. Rep. Greg Murphy, Republican of North Carolina, also a practicing physician, asked Monahan to consider establishing a Capitol Hill patient room or area in which House members who are physicians can check and observe colleagues who want consultations.

In March, Monahan told House members, “I like to make sure our services are aligned to what the needs are” and added, “I’d like to have a greater focus on women’s health care.”

In a report to the House earlier this year, Monahan raised some of the other lesser known roles of his office. “Our staff conducts health inspections of all food service establishments,” his report said. “We also work with the Capitol Police and the Architect to ensure individuals are compliant with environmental health educational and medical surveillance programs.”

Rep. Norma Torres, Democrat of California, told CBS News the House committee with oversight over the management of House operations, including Monahan’s office, will continue to review the Attending Physician Office’s performance. Torres said that as the ranking member of the House Administration Oversight Subcommittee, she would “continue to work with my colleagues to identify ways to provide the OAP the resources it needs to meet the challenges of tomorrow.”

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