“What have the Medical Association and ALAPAC done for me lately?”
It’s a question posed to me often, in various forms, by physicians whom I’m asking to join the Medical Association and contribute to ALAPAC. It’s a tough one to reply to – not for a shortage of answers – but for the difficulty, even for a seasoned communicator like myself, to encapsulate succinctly.
I like analogies, so here’s one to start: a legislative session is like a surgical procedure; hundreds of things can go wrong, and getting through one without incident is deemed a success. To reiterate: when nothing bad happens in a legislative session that is a victory. Preposterous? Allow me to elaborate.
It’s been attributed to everyone from Thomas Jefferson to Mark Twain, but the old adage “no one’s life, liberty or property are safe while the legislature is in session” certainly rings true. The Alabama Legislature may only be in session three days each week for three-and-a-half months (plus special sessions) a year, but just like with a surgical procedure, countless things can go wrong during that time.
Representing physicians at the legislature, the Medical Association is severely outnumbered. There are nearly 600 registered lobbyists in Alabama, many with clients – drug companies, health insurers, personal injury lawyers – interested in health care but whose corporate profits strategy or legislative goals are at odds with those of patients and physicians. I’ve heard physicians say they don’t like politics, that it’s dirty business. This is understandable but frankly, irrelevant. Feelings have no place here. Like it or not, politicians are in your business.
On average, a typical legislative session will see a combined 1,000 House and Senate bills introduced, with roughly 15 percent touching health care in some fashion. Over a four-year legislative cycle, that’s 600 “procedures” to get through with as few complications as possible. Some of these are initiatives the Medical Association supports, others will need tweaking through amendments or substitutes, still others will have no redeeming elements whatsoever and are outright opposed.
If that sounds simple in principle, it is not so in practice. To illustrate the complexity and unpredictability of an average legislative day, picture an emergency physician. At the State House, there is little warning of what daily catastrophes will present themselves or what will have to be triaged depending on severity. Committee testimony, one-on-one meetings with legislators, bill negotiations with opposing parties, these are all part of a typical legislative day. Getting through the day without any bad happenings is a success, even more so all 30 days of the session.
While it is the Medical Association’s role to lobby the legislature on issues important to physicians, it is the role of the Alabama Medical PAC (ALAPAC) to help elect candidates to office with whom physicians and the Medical Association can work on important health-related issues. Over just the past few legislative sessions alone, the Medical Association, with the help of ALAPAC-supported legislators, successfully saw passage of several important bills.
These include “virtual credit card” legislation to help medical practices from unknowingly getting hit with hidden processing fees in electronic payments from health insurers and RCOs; the chemical endangerment “fix” legislation protecting pregnant women and their doctors from prosecution for the issuance of legitimate prescriptions (after the courts issued a new interpretation of Alabama’s chemical endangerment of children law); and, direct primary care legislation, which ensures state government stays out of private contracts between physicians and their patients. The list also includes legislation related to increasing naloxone availability, establishing guidelines for interstate medical licensure, and preventing Medicaid cuts, to name but a few.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, other proposed legislation is so bad there is no “fixing” it, bills like the Patient Compensation System legislation from 2016. The PCS legislation would levy an $80 million tax increase on physicians to fund a new government-administered malpractice claims payout system that would deprive physicians and legitimately-injured patients of their legal rights, undo decades of medical liability reforms and make Alabama doctors appear – on the national claims database – to be practicing sub-standard medicine. This legislation was, with the assistance of ALAPAC-supported legislators, defeated.
In the same vein as the PCS bill, pharmaceutical legislation was introduced in 2017 that would (1) lower biologic pharmaceutical standards in Alabama law below those set by the FDA, (2) withhold critical health information from patients and their doctors and, (3) significantly increase administrative burdens on physicians. This legislation met the same fate as the PCS legislation, but both bills are expected to return in a future session. (Click here for a complete recap of the 2017 legislative session.)
Clearly, the Medical Association and ALAPAC have been hard at work for physicians and patients, from the primary care doctor to the sub-specialist. There is a natural tendency for physicians to associate and support their respective specialties, which they unequivocally should. At the same time however, the collective strength of a unified state medical society representing all physicians of all specialties and the patients they care for is much greater than any individual specialty on its own.
This article began with a question and so it is fitting to end with one: What have you done lately to help the Medical Association and ALAPAC succeed for you?