E. Ratcliffe "Andy" Anderson Jr., M.D., a retired Air Force general who flew combat missions in Vietnam, dropped a bomb on the American Medical Association last week, and the organization's fragile reputation may be only one of the casualties.
Anderson, the AMA's chief executive, filed a $5 million defamation and breach of contract lawsuit on June 18 against his own organization. The suit couldn't have come at a worse time, in the midst of the House of Delegates' summer meeting in Chicago, where officials would have preferred to focus on issues such as the patient-protection debate in Congress, the marketing muscle of drug companies and membership-recruitment efforts.
Instead, the delegates were left to cope with big headlines and negative news reports that focused renewed attention on a subject most everyone in the AMA would just as soon forget: the organization's disastrous 1997 endorsement deal with the Sunbeam Corp.
"He's a former general, and he's used to working in a top-down fashion and getting his way," said Stuart Seides, a cardiologist who is president of the Medical Society of the District of Columbia. "He got upset, and now he's decided to `nuke' the place."
Anderson's lawsuit revived concerns about the judgment of top AMA executives, at a time when the association continues to struggle with fiscal woes and falling membership. Anderson filed his lawsuit one day after the death of James Sammons, M.D., whose own tenure as executive vice president of the AMA was cut short by financial scandal (See story, p. 23).
Anderson's bomb may be felt as far away as the nation's capital, where the AMA could face credibility issues as it continues its expensive advocacy efforts on a key issue: a patient protection bill that allows individuals to sue HMOs in state court.
"I think it's unfortunate and disappointing," said Rodney Hood, an internist from San Diego who is president of the National Medical Association, which represents about 26,000 black doctors. "I've been trying to encourage more people of color to join the organization. This doesn't help."
Regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit, Hood declared, "the (AMA) leadership needs to be held accountable for allowing this to get to this point."
Jack Lewin, M.D., the top executive at the California Medical Association, was harshly critical of Anderson for timing the lawsuit to coincide with the annual meeting, ensuring maximum exposure and public embarrassment. "This hurts medicine, and it hurts the AMA," he said.
Despite the lawsuit, Anderson continued to preside as the AMA's top administrator. Asked if he plans to remain on the job, Anderson replied: "That will be up to the board."
Anderson's suit against the AMA and Timothy Flaherty, M.D., chairman of the board of trustees, is pending in Cook County Circuit Court in Chicago. It charges that the board of trustees blocked Anderson's attempt last year to fire legal counsel Michael Ile, who allegedly botched a real-estate deal in downtown Chicago by selling a valuable parcel of land for about $13.5 million below market value. Anderson alleges that the AMA's top leadership protected Ile because the lawyer shielded the board of trustees from responsibility in the Sunbeam deal, which cost five employees their jobs, including then-Chief Executive P. John Seward, M.D.
The Sunbeam deal was scrubbed after a torrent of criticism questioning the ethics of the exclusive arrangement. The AMA was later forced to pay Sunbeam $10 million to settle a breach-of-contract lawsuit.
"When I began to question some of the unusual aspects of the sale of the AMA's real estate . . . I opened a Pandora's Box and found Sunbeam II," Anderson said in a written statement released by his lawyer, Charles Pautsch of Wessels & Pautsch in Chicago.
The AMA, meantime, has declared the lawsuit "frivolous," suggesting that Anderson took the unusual action only after failing to persuade the board to grant him a lucrative settlement. Anderson's annual salary of about $515,000 is supplemented by about $145,000 in perquisites such as country-club memberships.