The effectiveness of the American Medical Association's formidable Washington lobbying machine could be a short-term casualty of the organization's ill-fated deal to endorse Sunbeam Corp. products.
As the organization of 290,000 physicians convened hundreds of its most activist members in Washington last week for an annual grass-roots political conference, some observers warned that the stain on the AMA's credibility could extend to its public policy activities.
AMA leaders acknowledged that the fallout from the endorsement deal, its termination and the subsequent lawsuit by Sunbeam could distract AMA members and staff alike from their public policy mission.
"It is important that this error not let us lose focus on the serious work the AMA is engaged in," Thomas Reardon, M.D., chairman of the association's board of trustees, told members attending the Washington conference.
Some observers last week said the AMA-which spent about $3 million on federal political campaigns in the 1995-1996 election cycle and boasts a network of 107,000 activist members-was too powerful to be hurt. And since the controversy erupted in the AMA's business division, its lobbying arm is likely to be insulated.
"At the end of the day, it's hard for me to see a connection between the (Sunbeam deal) and their legislative activities," said a Senate aide who asked not to be identified.
Others said longtime enemies are almost sure to point to the deal-which would have earned the AMA $1 million annually in royalties in exchange for endorsing Sunbeam products-as a sign that the association is only concerned about money.
Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), a psychiatrist who supports national health insurance-a favorite AMA target-said he believes the Sunbeam deal "will have some negative impact." But he added, "I don't think, per se, it makes them look any more greedy than they already are."
One frequent foe of the AMA expressed hope for a quick end to the controversy. "We actually hope all of this gets resolved because we think it's important that patients have confidence in their physicians and the major physician organization," said Susan Pisano, a spokeswoman for the American Association of Health Plans, which has clashed with the AMA over patient-care issues.
Some also warned that the Sunbeam deal could cause even allies to question the AMA's motives.
"People who are helpful and friendly will give some pause," said Randolph Fenninger, who lobbies for several physician specialty groups. "AMA has its detractors on Capitol Hill, and those people are saying, `Same old, same old.' They've got a management challenge, and they can fix it or screw it up."
Rep. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), an obstetrician, said he believes the AMA already has risen to that challenge. He said its decision to withdraw from the deal despite the lawsuit it faced convinced him the AMA will continue to be trustworthy when it comes to public policy. "What we want to see in the AMA is integrity," Coburn said. "What they did showed integrity."