Letter to Reid on healthcare from former Surgeon General Koop shuts Senate

A letter about healthcare reform to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) from former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop triggered a security scare that briefly shut down much of the Senate on Wednesday.

Koop wrote Reid a typed letter, tucked inside a hand-written business envelope, that appeared in Reid’s office without postage and without going through a security screening process. A Senate postal clerk noticed the envelope and alerted a Reid staffer, who in turn notified Capitol Police about 2 p.m.

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A small swarm of officers responded, first shutting down the hallway outside Reid’s office and then taking the even rarer step of shutting down the wide Ohio Clock corridor that senators use for press conferences outside the Senate’s main entrance. Mindful of the ricin and anthrax attacks in 2001, teams of hazardous materials technicians were called and tested the envelope before opening it and discovering Koop’s letter.

Koop, 93, the Reagan administration’s surgeon general from January 1982 to October 1989 and now a professor at Dartmouth Medical School, told The Hill he gave the envelope to Sen. Orrin Hatch’s (R-Utah) to deliver to Reid. A Hatch staffer then apparently dropped the letter off in a mailbox bin inside Reid’s second-floor suite, just steps from the Senate chamber. Hatch's office did not have an immediate comment.

“I did write it, but I didn’t mean anything nefarious and I’m sitting here smiling because it all seems to be a big buzz about nothing,” Koop said by phone from his home in Hanover, N.H.

“There’s no law about how to deliver a letter. I can appreciate all of the security that surrounds the leader, but this all could have been settled in a few minutes.”

Senate Sergeant at Arms Terry Gainer said Senate officials take unscreened mail particularly seriously after the 2001 terrrorist attacks.

“The staff in the Capitol in particular and on the Hill in general are very sensitive to mail that ends up in an office and hasn’t been cleared,” Gainer said.

Gainer said Senate officials have not yet contacted Koop to verify that the letter was his, but said the letter did discuss healthcare reform. Gainer described the letter as typed and well-written, and addressed to Reid as well as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

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Some Senate business continued as usual during the hour-long security scare, as senators continued with scheduled floor speeches. The closed hallways prevented many aides and staffers from reaching or leaving their offices, however, and much of Reid's own staff was apparently cooped up inside the second-floor suite.

Asked what his letter communicated to Reid and Pelosi, Koop said he was frustrated that Democratic leaders and the Obama administration are crafting healthcare reform without talking to enough experts.

“My mood about healthcare is that it definitely needs reform,” Koop said. “But the whole thing is being discussed by people who don’t understand it. I mean, this isn’t something that happened yesterday. I’ve been working on it for 25 years.”

More specifically, Koop said he did not necessarily oppose the Democratic-written healthcare bills, but does believe that congressional leaders and the White House have been too secretive.

“I don’t favor any one approach, but I do think we’ve been misled by the president about transparency,” Koop said. “We were told it was all going to be an open process. And this isn’t a dumb country — I know there are a lot of very smart minds about healthcare out there, but those aren’t among the names that Obama seems to be leaning on.”

This story was updated at 5:45 p.m.