Courtesy of The New York Times

Dr. Cameron Webb, a previous resident at Weill Cornell, runs for congress.

October 31, 2020

Weill Cornell Alum Takes Aim at Healthcare Reform and Racial Justice in Competitive Congressional Race

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As Election Day draws near, politicians around the country are jostling to gather last minute support. At the center of one of the most competitive races in the country is a physician who received his training at Weill Cornell Medicine. 

Dr. Cameron Webb, who began his career as an internal medicine resident at Weill, is running as the Democratic challenger in Virginia’s 5th Congressional District. While the mostly rural district has traditionally leaned conservative, it suddenly became competitive when Liberty University official Bob Good ousted the more moderate incumbent Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-Va.) in the Republican primary.    

According to the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election forecaster, the race is now considered a “toss-up,” offering House Democrats one of their best chances at increasing their majority.     

As the country battles the COVID-19 pandemic, Webb felt that he can offer a unique perspective in Congress as a Black physician that aims to work across the aisle to help his constituents.  

Leading up to 2019, Webb initially had no aspirations of becoming a candidate for political office, but his experience as a physician ultimately encouraged him to look for ways to make a larger impact. While doctors treat individual patients, Webb concluded that he could produce a greater difference by focusing on policy that affects communities at large.  

“The decision to run was rooted in recognizing that I could stay in the hospital and keep treating sick patients, or I could get upstream of it and try to work to make our communities a little healthier,” Webb said. 

The lawyer-physician worked on healthcare and the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative in the Obama White House and also worked during the transition between the Obama and Trump administrations. He saw firsthand the latter’s many attacks on the Affordable Care Act, which further motivated him to run for office. Despite the ideological differences between the two administrations, Webb nevertheless focused on working toward common goals in healthcare and education.

“I’m a consensus builder by nature. So I like to have those conversations, find where things are similar and then build from there,” Webb said. “I don’t frame my campaign around culture wars. I don’t frame my campaign around national issues … I designed this campaign around very local perspectives.”

Webb sees himself as a unique candidate due to his extensive work in advocacy as a lawyer and community organizer. While his training and experience as a physician exposed him to the struggles of sick and injured patients, he noted that much of what affects his patients is the “upstream” of the hospital — factors that are often referred to as “social determinants of health” and could be remedied with solutions other than hospital care. Awareness of these upstream factors  led him to working on issues of housing, racial inequality, food insecurity and criminal justice reform in cities across the country.

“I see our communities through the lens of people’s moments when they come into the hospital. So sometimes they’re coming in with conditions, but really, their core problem is food insecurity, or housing instability or even income inequality,” Webb said. 

Webb’s education at Weill Cornell and New York-Presybterian Hospital was formative in merging his roles as a physician and an advocate. While many of his peers chose fields like cardiology or infectious diseases for their supplemental second year clinics, Webb took the opportunity to work in community organizing: For two years, he worked in public housing at a federally qualified health center near Queensbridge.

Webb expressed gratitude for mentors at Cornell, like Dr. Susana Morales, internal medicine, who shared and fostered his passion for pursuing health justice. Morales characterized Webb as a warm leader with an impressive ability to develop a community with his fellow residents. 

“I know that he’s extremely committed to issues of access to health care and to the care of the underserved,” Dr. Morales said. “I think he cares about all people, but I think he also has a special concern for vulnerable populations. And that’s been part of his interest in trying to enhance access to care for everyone in this country.”

Webb said addressing health inequalities resulting from social determinants of health is even more relevant now during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Drivers of health outcomes like housing, food access, transportation, education, income and poverty have played “outsized roles” in hospitalizations and deaths in the last several months. Over the course of the pandemic, Black and Latinx populations have been hospitalized at nearly five times the rate of white populations.

Webb said his experiences treating COVID-19 patients has given him important insights to conversations about these social determinants of health. 

Specifically, Webb sees his identity as a Black physician as vital to the perspective he offers as a candidate and potential congressman. 

“I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about just how important it is in this moment to have this vantage point as a physician and as a physician of color in this pandemic,” Webb said. “I have a very up close and personal look at how [the pandemic] is creating and driving disparities and outcomes.”

Webb noted that while he would be the first Black physician to serve as a voting member of Congress, if elected, advocates before him were the ones who paved the road. Two Black physicians had previously served as non-voting congressional delegates, while other notable Black advocates have emphasized the importance of healthcare in the greater scheme of racial inequality.

“W.E.B Du Bois talked a lot about racial disparities and health outcomes,” Webb said. “And then you can go to the 1960s: Dr. Martin Luther King talked about disparities and injustice in healthcare being the most shocking of all the inequalities. We’ve known about these disparities for a while.” 

Webb counts himself as a part of the legacy of addressing these inequalities in the pursuit of a more equitable nation for all. Morales said she believed the pandemic and recent spotlight on racial disparities have created a context in which Webb’s unique perspective can have a profound impact.

“I think he would bring both the perspective of being a doctor and being a person of color in a time where there’s been increased attention to issues of health equity and health disparities,” Morales said. “When you can bring personal experience to the table, and it’s no longer an abstraction, it’s not just like a policy brief, but it’s also real people, real humanity, that can only help.”