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AMA votes to back formation of a physicians union

CHICAGO -- Leaders of the American Medical Association say the national labor union they are forming for doctors will give them back the autonomy that managed-care companies are taking away.

"Physicians can't earn an honest return on an honest day of work," said Dr. Edmund Donoghue of Chicago. "Doctors are taking orders from all kinds of people who have no medical training."The AMA's 494-member House of Delegates voted Wednesday to back the formation of a union to give the profession more leverage over health insurers.

Those companies quickly predicted higher costs for all consumers: The move could add 2 million people to the list of the uninsured and push premiums up by more than 10 percent, warned Chip Kahn, president of the Health Insurance Association of America.

But doctors favoring unionization portrayed themselves as saviors in an industry they say is increasingly dominated by bureaucratic bean counters instead of scientists.

"My profession is being crushed under the rocks of rules and regulations, government influence, HMOs," said Dr. Jack Summers of Akron, Ohio, adding that labor organization is necessary "to protect the rights of American physicians and to protect their patients."

Federal law bars doctors who are not employees from forming unions in the traditional sense. Self-employed doctors would not be covered by the AMA's vote unless Congress approves pending legislation that gives them collective-bargaining rights.

Doctors who work full-time for health maintenance organizations or hospitals already can unionize and have been doing so at an increasing rate. The AMA vote essentially puts the organization's stamp of approval on the movement.

Self-employed doctors have faced the threat of antitrust charges of conspiring in restraint of trade if they tried to unionize.

Federal Trade Commission Chairman Robert Pitofsky told the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that creating an antitrust exemption could lead to price-fixing and boycotts by physicians, dentists and pharmacists.

"Even though there are serious problems concerning the relationship of HMOs and other health plans to doctors and patients that deserve to be addressed, this proposal is the wrong approach," Pitofsky said.