AMA Seeks Tort Reform to Raise Membership

Article excerpt

HONOLULU -- In the complicated calculus that governs membership in professional societies, winning--whether the win is in state houses or on Capitol Hill--is the only thing.

Medicare reform counts as a big win on the scoreboard for the American Medical Association because it directly affects the physician bottom line: a 1.5% increase in Medicare reimbursement rather than a 4.5% cut.

But the biggest win--tort reform--remains far beyond the organization's reach. In June 2002, when the AMA House of Delegates declared federal tort reform to be priority No. 1, the AMA had 260,455 dues-paying members. Eighteen months later, AMA has roughly 250,000 members. During the last calendar year, the number of members dropped approximately 3.8%, the board of trustees reported.

Tort reform, according to the AMA's own research, is likely to continue as a membership issue for years to come. For example, when the organization surveyed medical students in 45 states, it found that 86% of students think medical liability is a crisis or major problem. Additionally, 39% said liability concerns were influencing not only their choice of medical specialty but also their decisions about where to practice medicine. Thus, according to AMA president Donald J. Palmisano, progress on the liability front could logically translate into more dues-paying members.

The AMA leadership's frustration over the failure to achieve tort reform was palpable at the interim meeting of the AMA's House of Delegates. President Bush supports tort reform and an AMA-backed bill has passed the U.S. House of Representatives again and again. Nonetheless, the legislation consistently has hit the wall in the Senate, where it has failed to win the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster by Democrats who traditionally oppose federal tort reform.

In July, the AMA again saw hope for tort reform stalled in the Senate. At that time Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), himself a surgeon, suggested an alternative strategy: a tort reform bill that offered relief only to certain high-risk specialties such as obstetrics, emergency medicine, and neurosurgery. …