Al Gross points to medical background in Senate bid

A white man in glasses and a white coat takes the blood pressure of another white man
Dr. Al Gross with a patient. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Al Gross for Senate)

Al Gross has drawn from his 25 years of experience practicing medicine in trying to make a case for why Alaskans should elect him to be a U.S. senator. Gross’s health care background is important to his campaign, but it’s also opened him up to criticism from Sen. Dan Sullivan. 

Al Gross grew up around politics as the son of Av Gross, attorney general under Gov. Jay Hammond. But this is Gross’s first campaign. He puts his Alaska credentials front and center — he talks of summers commercial fishing and of shooting a bear. But his campaign also has talked a lot about the decades he spent as a medical doctor — in writing, in media appearances, and in the case of a recent ad, in a jingle. 

Gross was an orthopedic surgeon in Juneau for nearly 20 years before getting a master’s degree in public health at the University of Southern California. He then moved to Petersburg, where he practiced for a few more years. 

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When Gross started his campaign last year, there wasn’t a global pandemic. He’s argued that he’s positioned to work on national strategies. Before President Trump contracted the coronavirus, Gross called for a more comprehensive response to COVID-19.

“We’ve had absolute failure of leadership on the federal level,” Gross said during a campaign stop in September in Juneau. “We’ve got a worldwide pandemic. Our president and leaders around him are not leading by example. They’re not providing a national plan for battling the problem.” 

Gross’s positions on the pandemic are part of a broader focus on health care. The issue section of his campaign site — called “prescriptions” — starts with his stance on health care. He wants to preserve the protections for covering pre-existing conditions, allow individuals and small businesses to buy into Medicare through a public option, and allow Medicare to negotiate lower prices for prescription drugs. 

Gross said high health care costs have been a drain on Alaska’s economy. 

“Labor costs are extraordinarily high because, of course, our health care costs are the highest in the world here in Alaska,”  he said.

Along with his Alaska cred and his medical experience, Gross also has highlighted that he’s a political independent, though he’s also the nominee of the Democratic Party. Gross was not registered with either party for most of his life, though he was registered as a Republican at one time and registered as a Democrat from early 2017 to early 2018. Gross said he did that to protest Trump’s election and that he truly is an independent.

Before Gross launched his campaign, he spent two years engaged in public health advocacy, making appearances writing newspaper opinion articles. He wrote in the Juneau Empire in April 2017 that “the only solution to Alaska’s healthcare fiscal crisis is to create a single payer health care system.” He continued to praise single-payer when he appeared on KTOO’s Juneau Afternoon a year later. 

“The Alaskan economy is in a lot of trouble, primarily because of the high health care costs that have developed in the state over the last 30 years. And I think the only way to break the cycle is for us to develop a single-payer system,” Gross said.

But Gross has walked back that position. Since launching his Senate campaign last year, he has pushed for a public option rather than changing the entire insurance system. 

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In September, Gross said he had pointed out that single-payer systems led to lower prices in other countries. But he now says he wasn’t advocating for it here. 

“I never said nor believed that a single-payer system would actually work in America, but I do believe that a public option allowing people to buy into Medicare at cost would be an excellent way to provide health insurance at a more affordable level and yet still allow people to keep their private health insurance if they want to,” he said.

In 2017, Gross said his income as a surgeon working three to four days per week reached as high as $2.5 million, as he argued that health care prices should be lower. 

His financial success from being a doctor has added up. On his financial disclosure, he listed his assets — most jointly owned with his wife Monica, who’s also a doctor — as being worth between $10 million and $26 million. One asset, in particular, led Sullivan supporters to question Gross’s commitment to Alaska — a house in California assessed at $3 million.  

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Sullivan campaign spokesman Matt Shuckerow said Gross has been part of the problem of high health care costs. Shuckerow raised broader concerns about Gross’s truthfulness. 

“He says one thing publicly, but privately — or looking back in his record — he has a very different viewpoint,” Shuckerow said. “And the Gross campaign and the candidate have attempted to … hide his positions from Alaskans.”

Shuckerow said Gross would pursue single-payer health care if elected and undermine private health insurance. And Shuckerow said Gross’s party affiliation is similar, and that he “cleaned up” his record by changing his registration status as a Democrat. Shuckerow said that’s a problem, because Democratic leaders would hurt resource development in Alaska. 

Gross’s campaign said it’s Sullivan who’s lying to Alaskans about Gross.