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Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn talks cancer, health care, leaving Congress

Coburn says he has a rare type of prostate cancer and that he has given a lot of thought to whether he wants to stay in the Senate for the next three years.
by Chris Casteel Published: November 24, 2013
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Sen. Tom Coburn has beaten melanoma, colon cancer and prostate cancer. He is now in the midst of fighting prostate cancer again.

Last week, Coburn, R-Muskogee, kept up his usual hectic schedule on Capitol Hill and, in an interview in his office, he was as impassioned as ever on topics such as health care and the Senate's operations.

Coburn, 65, a physician, was first elected to the Senate in 2004, and he limited himself to two terms. He won the second term in 2010 and has three more years of service.

He said he is giving a lot of thought to leaving early because of the recurrence of prostate cancer, but then said the decision ultimately would be dictated by whether he and his staff could still make a difference.

Some of the questions and answers have been edited for brevity.

Q: Let me ask you how you feel.

A: I feel good.

Q: What was the treatment?

A: I don't want to go into the details of my treatment. I've got a long way to go but I've got a good plan. February will be my tough month — my tougher month.

Q: This is going to sound like a stupid question, but is there any explanation for why you have had all these cancers?

A: Poor genes.

Q: Can you trace it to your own mother and father?

A: No, but ... everybody gets cancer cells. We have these dimers in our blood that identify cancer cells every day. You get them every day. And you have a good immune system that recognizes them and takes them out. Probably I have a defect. ... I don't have a good system to take out bad cells. And so they get in a focus and they grow. Not many people in my family have lived very long. But most of it's not been related to cancer, and the cancer that's been there has been secondary to smoking. My prostate cancer is a cancer that 1 in 100,000 people get when they get prostate cancer. It's a rare type of prostate cancer.

Q: But it's treatable?

A: Yeah!

Q: What's the survival rate?

A: Well, I'll tell you in a couple of months when I look at my tumor markers. It looks good. I got good assurances that I'll be around five or 10 years, unless I'm another 1 in 100,000 that doesn't respond to treatment.

Q: How have you been able to fight (cancer) off so many times?

A: 'Cause I have great doctors and great medicine based on the free enterprise system in this country rather than a government-run system. ... If you want to know why I'm alive, it's because of the free enterprise system and the innovation in this country that has nothing to do with the government.

Q: Well, is that entirely true? There's a lot of research funded by the National Institutes of Health.

A: Sure there is, and there's a lot of research funded by drug companies, by universities that aren't taking an NIH grant. It's not that NIH doesn't do a lot of good. It does. But do you think, given the opportunity to treat disease, the private sector wouldn't give a lot of money to fund research? And as the government grows, the private sector diminishes. The government is highly inefficient. Just look at NIH — (It's) the best it's ever run under Francis Collins ... but it still does some of the most stupid stuff you've ever seen because the government is not efficient and doesn't care about costs.

Q: You predicted a couple of years ago — when the House first started its repeal efforts — you said that Obamacare would fall under its own weight. Do you see that happening now?

A: Look, you're going to see a couple of things happen. Next year, when the business mandate is no longer delayed, you're going to see the price for all these businesses' health care go up.

Next April, when everybody pays their taxes, and all our seniors who get meager returns now on their investments, now have to pay 3.5 percent of that return to Uncle Sam for Obamacare, you're going to see another blowup. Because most people don't realize that every interest income, every dividend they get, every short-term or long-term capital gain that they get, Obama takes 3.5 percent of that for this experiment that's going to fail.

(Note: the 3.8 percent surtax applies to singles with adjusted gross income above $200,000 and couples with AGI above $250,000).

And the next shoe to drop — you're really not going to get to see the same doctor. People who are in an ERISA (Employee Retirement Income Security Act) plan probably will, but the other two-thirds of Americans are going to end up having to change doctors.

Remember all the grief (when) I said that people are going to die? They are going to die. Because you're going to get a doctor that doesn't know you, doesn't know your personality, your psyche, the spiritual side of you and isn't gong to know how to read you and isn't going to intervene when they should be intervening on the art of medicine rather than the science of medicine. And that's where real care is given, in the art of medicine, knowing your patient.

Q: Why is it so hard to allow people to get insurance that don't have it now? Why is that so difficult?

A: Because there's no true market out there. What you have to do is create a safety net and you have to create a maximum exposure and let the market take care of everything in between.

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by Chris Casteel
Washington Bureau
Chris Casteel began working for The Oklahoman's Norman bureau in 1982 while a student at the University of Oklahoma. After covering the police beat, federal courts and the state Legislature in Oklahoma City, he moved to Washington in 1990, where...
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