ALBANY — A physician who made robocalls supporting Rep. Lee Zeldin stopped the calls this week after complaints by supporters of Zeldin’s opponent, Democrat Perry Gershon.
Dr. Jeff Vacirca said he was contacted by Zeldin’s campaign to make the robotic telephone calls that played Vacirca's taped message to phone numbers in the district, where some of his patients live. Vacirca is CEO of New York Cancer and Blood Specialists with offices in Port Jefferson, Setauket and Patchogue.
In the call, Vacirca identifies himself and his practice twice. He said Zeldin (R-Shirley) supports care for patients with pre-existing conditions and supports Social Security and Medicare, while Gershon supports "socialist-style, government control" health care that will drive up taxes and bankrupt Medicare.
“This robocall speaks to the culture of corruption connecting Washington and healthcare,” Gershon said. He said Zeldin got the doctor, “to call patients with a lie about my position on Medicare. I want to expand Medicare until all Americans benefit from its lower costs for better access to care.”
Zeldin had no immediate comment.
Vacirca said in an interview that he never gave out any patients’ phone numbers, and only a minority of patients he happened to call were concerned about the messages. He said he wasn't paid for the call and received no benefit from Zeldin.
Vacirca said the robocalls were made over about 24 hours to 48 hours this week before they were stopped. He said he didn’t know many calls were made.
Vacirca said Zeldin, a Shirley Republican, has supported legislation sought by fellow physicians in the Community Oncology Alliance, a national group of oncology physicians who treat patients away from hospitals. The 15-year-old advocacy group lobbies in Washington on policy issues including health care funding. Vacirca is its president.
The organization contributed $156 each to eight members of Congress this year, though none to Zeldin, according to Federal Election Commission records.
“This was me exercising my right to free speech for someone who did nothing for me,” Vacirca said. Zeldin, he said, “supported my mission to take care of cancer patients.”
“What I do as an individual has nothing to do with the practice,” Vacirca said. “I never gave out patients’ numbers.”
He said patient reactions ran 10 to 1 positive, but he still decided to take it down.
“I said, if this stuff bothers you guys, for you guys we’ll take it down,” Vacirca said.
The American Medical Association cautions physicians about talking to patients about political issues, but notes “physicians enjoy the rights and privileges of free speech shared by all Americans.”