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Rep. Arvind Venkat, MD
Pennsylvania House of Representatives
District 30, Allegheny County
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Pennsylvania Rep. Arvind Venkat, MD, is an emergency physician. A McCandless resident, his first term in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives began in November 2022. He serves the 30th Legislative District, which includes part of Hampton Township and all of McCandless, Franklin Park, Ohio Township, Emsworth, Ben Avon, Ben Avon Heights, and Kilbuck in Allegheny County. He is the first Indian American elected to the Pennsylvania House and the first physician to serve in the General Assembly in nearly 60 years.
He currently serves on the following committees and caucuses:
- Allegheny County Delegation.
- Asian Pacific American Caucus (vice chair).
- Emerging Technologies Caucus.
- Insurance (secretary).
- Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus.
- Professional Licensure.
You were born in India and raised in Detroit. How old were you when you immigrated?
I was just 3 months old when my family came to the United States, so I grew up here. My parents are now retired physicians — my father a transplant nephrologist and my mother a pathologist.
They came here for their residencies, probably not expecting to be here for the rest of their lives. But the country and the community grew on them.
My family became very involved in Detroit’s Indian American community and, specifically, its large South Indian community. It was a great childhood for my younger brother and me. I still have family and friends in the Detroit area and across the country who are extraordinarily close to me.
Did you know from an early age that you wanted to become a doctor?
I majored in the history of science in college. I enjoyed learning about how science affects society. My plan was a legal career until I worked one summer for a lawyer and didn’t enjoy it at all. I started to think about what I might do that would have an impact on the world and where I could be of service. As a physician, you obviously care for patients, but you can be involved in your community in many other ways, too. That’s what really inspired me to go to medical school.
You attended Harvard for undergraduate and graduate study and Yale for medical school. Was attending an Ivy League university always an aspiration for you?
I was very fortunate to have a wonderful high school education where I could explore different interests. That allowed me to be successful in applying to Harvard for undergraduate study, and I stayed there to complete my master’s degree.
I considered multiple medical schools, but I really loved Yale because of its focus on lifelong education. There isn’t the hyper-competitiveness there that exists in a lot of medical schools. It’s a more collaborative environment, and there’s a recognition that being a physician is a lifelong education process. There were only 100 people in my class, so I really got to know my peers and the faculty. I really enjoyed it.
What led you to specialize in emergency medicine?
I fell in love with emergency medicine because I loved taking care of everyone who came through the door. That’s the great privilege of emergency medicine: There’s no gatekeeper. It doesn’t matter if they’re the wealthiest person in the community or the most impoverished, if they’re Black or white, or if they’re an immigrant or native-born citizen.
You try to help every patient as best you can — and hopefully make an immediate difference in their life, often in a life-and-death manner. I also like the fact that because you care for everyone, you get to be a voice in your community for those who don’t have a voice.
As an emergency physician, what racial and health disparities concern you the most?
Emergency departments (EDs) are the canary in the coal mine for our health care system. Whatever issues exist in health care, good and bad, manifest in the ED. And that’s true for society as well. When I started as a resident, the Affordable Care Act didn’t exist. One in five emergency patients was uninsured — and they were disproportionately African American and Hispanic American. They were the working poor and impoverished.
I worked in the ED at the height of the opioid crisis, which is still with us. And we’re now seeing the growing impact of gun violence. As an emergency physician, I’ve treated every type of gunshot victim that you can imagine — and some you don’t want to. It’s no surprise that many emergency physicians are involved in public health advocacy. They see the interconnectedness of medicine and the ills in society.
Thankfully, we’ve improved insurance coverage with the Affordable Care Act, but we haven’t necessarily improved access to care. So, working poor and impoverished patients continue to show up in the ED.
How did COVID-19 impact health disparities?
As a history of science major, I saw how pandemics put a microscope on health disparities and the tensions that exist in society. COVID-19 was certainly such a crystallizing event. At the height of the pandemic, individuals who were well-off generally did better in terms of their health. They could work from home. They got vaccines. They had access to medical care.
When COVID hit, I was president of the state emergency physicians organization. I got involved because it was the best vehicle to become engaged with the community. We advocated for years that there should be more investment in public health and more investment in emergency medical services (EMS) — they need to have capacity and resilience. But nothing really happened.
Then, COVID hit. My phone blew up, as did those of others involved in public health advocacy. That got me involved — not only with state government but also with my community. I did a lot of communication about where we were in the pandemic, how we could stay safe, and how we could move forward.
I felt it was important to learn lessons from the pandemic so that we don’t condemn ourselves to repeat the same mistakes in terms of lack of investment in public health and EMS, our health care system, and access to care. Those are decisions being made in state government. That’s why I decided to run for public office.
You’re the first physician to serve in Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives in more than 60 years. What one thing would you like your fellow legislators to know about health disparities?
When there are gaps in the health care system, they inevitably are more severe in certain racial communities. I see that as an emergency physician because the ED cares for everyone, no questions asked. It gives me a lens into those inequities.
I still practice in the ED — generally a Saturday-night shift once or twice a month. The patients that I see are disproportionately African American, those who are on Medicaid, or those who are working class. They come to the ED because they often don’t have anywhere else to go.
It’s also important to recognize that 80% of our health has nothing to do with what happens in a hospital or clinic. It has to do with the environment. It has to do with access to good housing. It has to do with reducing gun violence. It has to do with public education funding. Collectively, all those factors have a huge impact on health — much more so than what any physician does in a hospital.
You are also a member of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus. Why is its work important to you?
The Legislative Black Caucus started when there were very few Black legislators in the General Assembly. Over time, that number has grown, so the caucus now includes all legislators of color. In addition to African Americans and Hispanic Americans, there are four of us in the House and one in the Senate of Asian American descent.
The caucus focuses on sponsoring legislation designed to eliminate disparities and create opportunities. It’s been an eye-opening experience for me to see how many initiatives are needed in our state to address the inequities that we have in health care, housing, education, and other areas. That’s where the work of the caucus is instrumental.
In January, you co-sponsored House Bill 78 to establish the Pennsylvania Medical Debt Relief Program. It would provide medical debt relief to the most financially vulnerable residents of our commonwealth. Why is this bill important?
Medical debt is the leading cause of bankruptcy in the United States. It disproportionately affects more women than men and more members of the African American and Hispanic American communities.
Over the last decade, I’ve seen a change in my patients. It used to be that my patients who didn’t have anywhere else to go would come in, and we would treat them. If they needed to be admitted, they would be willing to be hospitalized. Now, I have patients who say, “I’m not going to accept your recommendation for further care because I can’t incur that degree of debt.”
The idea here is that with a small state appropriation, we can give the resources to an entity like RIP Medical Debt (a 501 charity focused on the elimination of personal medical debt) that can partner with willing health systems to purchase distressed debt and then forgive it. That’s a win-win for everybody. It’s a win for patients because the program is targeted toward those whose household income is up to 400% of the federal poverty level or whose medical debt exceeds 5% of their annual income — which, conservatively, is up to 1 million Pennsylvanians. It’s a win for the health care systems because they will be able to collect some small amount of what is largely unrecoverable debt.
With a $5 million investment (about 0.01% of last year’s state budget), it’s estimated more than $575 million of medical debt could be cleared for qualifying Pennsylvanians. And it is a win for the rest of us as there is cost-shifting in the system to compensate for those who are uninsured and underinsured.
I am hopeful that we will be able to get this done.
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