A reasoned voice in a sometimes unreasonable process. That description by TMA President David Fleeger, MD, sums up how many colleagues have characterized former Rep. John Zerwas, MD, who, after 13 years, left the Texas Legislature on Sept. 30 to become UT System’s next executive vice chancellor for health affairs.
That calm nature certainly came through in the many interviews this editor conducted with the Republican from Richmond over the years. And it probably came in just as handy in his professional life as an anesthesiologist as it did at the Capitol, where he held the purse strings as chief House budget-writer for the 2019 and 2017 sessions.
Even before politics, Dr. Zerwas served as a leader in organized medicine – as a past president of the American Society of Anesthesiologists – and in administration, as chief medical officer at Memorial Hermann Health System. When then-state Rep. Glenn Hegar announced in 2006 he wasn’t going to run again, Dr. Zerwas said: “I bounced the idea off of my (late) wife and thought she might throw up a red light and say, ‘You’re crazy.’ But it was the opposite. She was all in.”
Twelve years after winning the District 28 seat, he says it was “not something I had a lifelong ambition to do, but it did become something of a calling at that point in my life. Reflecting on it, it’s probably one of the most relevant things I’ve ever done.”
In 2019, Dr. Zerwas was one of four physicians serving in the House alongside three in the Senate.
And don’t confuse a measured voice with an unpersuasive one.
A physician voice in the legislature, he said, turned out to be “critically important. No doubt that this is an area most people are not engaged in and have a hard time understanding.”
That proved true in some of the personal accomplishments Dr. Zerwas chose to highlight: architect of the Texas Anatomical Gift Act – which established the state process for organ donation – and the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas – which set up a state agency to expand cancer research and increase access to prevention programs. (See “Vote for CPRIT,” page 18.)
Nor was Dr. Zerwas afraid to vocalize even an unpopular position on an issue he described to this editor in 2013 as “so politically radioactive” that it went nowhere during that legislative session: expanding Medicaid.
For this interview, he told Texas Medicine that throughout his legislative career, “Probably the one thing that I’m disappointed we didn’t do something on was the whole effort to expand Medicaid. We have let our politics get in the way of very rational, logical solutions to the problem of a very significant number of uninsured in our state.”
Some of his other notable achievements for medicine over the years include raising the minimum age to purchase tobacco and vape products to 21 and improving mental health funding.
And perhaps serendipitously, Dr. Zerwas’ career pivot led him to higher education, an area in which the former House Committee on Higher Education chair was particularly influential and passionate, having helped erect new graduate medical education expansion programs in 2015.
“I always had a sense to take my clinical, administrative, and legislative experience and bring that all together in an academic environment. When I look to training and educating the next generation of health care providers, this role is uniquely positioned to do that.”
Dr. Zerwas now holds the purse strings to two-thirds of the UT budget, encompassed in the health care centers he oversees at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, and several UT medical schools.
Dr. Zerwas is also a “big believer that physicians in leadership are much more effective if they’re still serving in a clinical role,” and he hopes to continue practicing medicine, even if only in a mentorship role.
One major project Dr. Zerwas could reveal he is working on: setting up the Texas Child Mental Health Care Consortium, a collaboration set up under Senate Bill 11 that leverages the health care-related institutions of the state’s medical schools to improve Texas’ mental health care system.
If that bill and many before it are any indication, a lot of what goes on in the legislature eventually finds its way to UT – among the state’s largest health care and higher education systems – so those Capitol halls likely have not heard the last of Dr. Zerwas.
Tex Med. 2019;115(10):48
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