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‘Freedom fighter’ takes stage again

By Mark Holan

11/10/2009 Health News Florida

If David McKalip gave the impression that he was retiring from political activism after last summer’s e-mail dispute, the retreat didn’t last long.

The St. Petersburg neurosurgeon has taken his fight against “the government takeover of health care” to Fox News and to a series of public meetings, including last weekend's American Medical Association meeting in Houston. In a series of tweets to his 52 Twitter followers, McKalip described the unsuccessful effort to overturn the trustees’ endorsement of the House health bill without a vote of the membership. 

Tomorrow, McKalip is scheduled to address the grand finale of the Tea Party Express national bus tour at Lake Eola Park in Orlando. In his 30-minute address, the surgeon told Health News Florida, he’ll say:

“This is a battle for the very future of America, and we are the freedom fighters that will save America.”

Tea Party Express, which splintered from the original Tea Party Patriots, is part of a right-wing coalition that raised loud objections to the federal health overhaul at town hall meetings this summer. The organization did not return several requests for comment.

“He was quiet for a while and then came back with a vengeance,” said state Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg.

“David is a passionate man,” said Tom Gaitens of Apollo Beach, state coordinator for FreedomWorks, the conservative activist group founded by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey. “You don’t always see that in the medical field,” Gaitens said. “They are taught to be dispassionate, but there is probably not a harder working guy on this issue.” 

McKalip says “politicians and pundits” mistakenly assumed he would drop out of sight after he was publicly chastised by the AMA and its Pinellas County affiliate in July for forwarding an e-mail that portrayed President Obama as a witchdoctor.

Some saw the e-mail, which had Obama dressed in a loincloth with a bone in his nose, as racist. Even though McKalip didn’t create the e-mail, he was portrayed as racist for forwarding it to others.

In the ensuing furor, McKalip resigned his office as president-elect of the Pinellas County Medical Association and offered a public apology. He remains on the board of the Florida Medical Association.

What did he learn?

“One should be careful not to offend the very people you are trying to help,” McKalip said.

The apology might have been the end of the flap, but as McKalip has continued to make public appearances, his detractors have given him as much publicity as his fans. His appearance on the Glenn Beck Show was duly noted on TPM Muckracker and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show. 

For McKalip, who recently posted a lengthy essay on the Web site Campaign for Liberty, the “health care freedom battlefield” is a contest between “arrogant elites” ranging from President Obama to the AMA, with special venom reserved for insurance companies.

He sees the media as lined up against those who support “individual freedom,” including Fox News, Tea Party activists and the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons, a conservative medical group for those who see AMA as too liberal.

What about those Americans who support some type of government health care?

“I don’t question others’ patriotism,” McKalip said, “but facts and history are on the side that I’m working on.”

McKalip, 44, isn’t a new to conservative political activism. In 2007 he lead a group called Cut Taxes Now that opposed the Penny for Pinellas sales tax in his home county. He also has been involved with efforts to cut state property taxes.

Nor is McKalip new to debates over the government’s role in health care. In 2005 he challenged state rules to make hospitals report how surgeons use antibiotics to prevent infections.

"I don't want the state telling patients what kind of medical care they can get," he told the St. Petersburg Times. He described the move toward guidelines and rules as "cookbook medicine," and suggested it threatened his patients and his future.

About the same time, McKalip launched a Web site, Doctors for Patient Freedom, to expound on his views.

McKalip said the Sept. 11 terrorist attack first roused him from the bubble of his practice to get involved with local and state disaster preparedness efforts. But the doctor said he quickly became “disillusioned” by waste in government spending.

“I predict if we have a pandemic flu there will be unnecessary deaths and unnecessary suffering because government has not properly planned,” McKalip said.

Kathryn Serkes, director of policy and public affairs for the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons, said McKalip “is at the front of those doctors now coming off the sidelines for his patients.” She said those who refuse to accept the doctor’s apology about the e-mail never wanted to listen to his ideas to begin with.

“There’s been a double standard in this debate all along,” she said.

Dr. Richard B. Warner of Overland Park, Kansas, a member of the Doctors for Patient Freedom steering committee, said the e-mail episode was “an unfortunate, impulsive incident.” He said McKalip is “good spirited and not racist.”

Rouson said he was familiar with some work McKalip had done years ago with African-American Boy Scouts. The lawmaker said he has spoken with several local doctors who disagree with McKalip but don’t want to publicly speak out against him or other health care opponents for professional reasons.

“There are a slew of people who disagree with him,” Rouson said.

They include those in power at the AMA. When Health News Florida asked about McKalip recently, the organization reissued the statement it sent out July 24.

“His actions have not only harmed the reputation of the AMA, but the medical profession as a whole,” the statement said. “While the AMA is pleased Dr. McKalip issued an apology to President Obama, his actions remain hurtful, disrespectful and inexplicable.”

The AMA does not prohibit its members from political activity.

“It is laudable for physicians to run for political office; to lobby for political positions, parties or candidates; and in every other way to exercise the full scope of their political rights as citizens,” AMA policy states. “These rights may be exercised individually or through involvement with organizations such as professional societies and political action committees.”

McKalip said he may even run for office, probably at the local level, such as for city council or county commission.

“I’ve considered it many times and I may have to sacrifice my career to do so,” he said.

Perhaps he could run under the banner of the Tea Party, which in August was certified by the Florida Secretary of State as an official political party.

McKalip, who is married with three children, said he spends one to six hours a day on his activism, a lot of it at night on the laptop. He also has donated money to a number of mostly Republican candidates, according to a review of state and national campaign finance databases.

McKalip said it would take “a 10-part series” to detail his views on health care reform. He favors individually owned heath accounts, which would free patients from staying in jobs they dislike in order to keep their health insurance.

“People would put money into their own account and could trust it would be there when they needed it,” McKalip said. “Instead of the government owning it, individuals would own it.”

McKalip said he will keep working “to stop government running our lives,” even if President Obama gets to sign a health care bill.

“I don’t blame my colleagues for not getting involved,” McKalip said. “Most of them are so beaten down by the insurance companies, the government regulators and the trial lawyers they are just biding their time until they can get out of medicine.” 

--Mark Holan is an independent journalist in Tampa. Carol Gentry, Editor, also contributed to this article. She can be reached at 727-410-3266.