After lobbying to bring healthcare reform back to the national stage, the AMA last month was set to weigh in as Congress opened debate on the patient bill of rights.
But the organization again found itself trying to extinguish a fire involving internal issues, raising questions about whether AMA can refocus its attention on Washington.
The turmoil erupted after E. Ratcliffe "Andy" Anderson, M.D., the executive vice president, filed a lawsuit June 18 against the AMA's board of trustees, accusing his employers of breach of contract and defamation of character. The suit, which revolves around Anderson's efforts to fire the organization's general counsel over a real estate deal, seeks $5 million in damages and a jury trial.
Anderson announced the suit as delegates gathered in Chicago for the annual House of Delegates meeting. Anderson continues to preside as the association's top staff executive.
What some have dubbed Sunbeam II has distracted the AMA from its larger message, says Howard Wolinsky, co-author of The Serpent on the Staff: The Unhealthy Politics of the American Medical Association.
"They're going to be so caught up in their internal problems that they will be distracted," Wolinsky says. "They will lose credibility. They can't afford to lose much more membership . . . They're in a sad state. (People) say America is suffering from a post-Vietnam syndrome. (The AMA) seems to be in a post-Sunbeam syndrome. They can't seem to get away from it."
Being distracted is nothing new for the AMA, he says.
"I call them the medical gang that can't shoot straight," Wolinsky says.
Delegates to the meeting agree that it's difficult to keep everyone's eye on the ball.
"It's such a distraction," says Marie Kuffner, M.D., a member of the California delegation. "This is read very badly at home . . . Everyone was like, 'I don't believe this; the AMA's at it again.' The damage is far greater to the grass-roots physicians who will or will not make the decision to join again.
"It should've been handled in the board room," Kuffner says.
But AMA officials, including Anderson, insist the lawsuit won't distract them from their mission. In a memo to employees, Anderson and Ted Lewers, M.D., chair of the board of trustees, urged employees to "continue to focus professionally on the important work of the AMA."
"This is a critical moment for healthcare and the medical profession," the memo continued. "We are closer than ever before to the passage of a meaningful patients' bill of rights, and we are making important strides in our efforts to gain regulatory relief for physicians."
In a statement, AMA officials dismissed the suit as "frivolous" and said they found it disturbing that Anderson chose to file his lawsuit during the House of Delegates meeting.
The group's new president, Richard Corlin, M.D., says the AMA remains "fully engaged in pursuing its legislative, advocacy and professional agendas," important issues that "demand the AMA's undivided attention."
"Nothing--and I repeat, nothing--is going to distract the AMA from doing all it can to ensure lawmakers pass a meaningful patients' bill of rights," Corlin says.
The lawsuit outlines what Anderson says was a clear breach of his contract. The board of trustees, he alleges, excluded him from a closed-door meeting in which they discussed hiring a new general counsel. Anderson's suit says he also was instructed to hire a counsel that would help the board cover its tracks in the failed 1997 Sunbeam deal. Board members and top officials claim they had only cursory knowledge of the deal before it was publicly announced.
Furthermore, Anderson in the suit alleges the board looked the other way while its attorney negotiated a real estate sale, costing the AMA millions in lost proceeds. Anderson also sued for defamation of character, alleging that comments in a meeting about his salary implied he was a liar.
Talk of the lawsuit and the resulting feud dominated conversation during the five-day House of Delegates meeting. AMA officials did their best to keep attention on resolutions and national political issues, limiting official discussion on the Anderson suit to an unprecedented two-hour closed-door meeting June 19 for delegates only.
That night, Anderson slipped a memo under the hotel room doors of delegates and others attending the convention. In the memo, Anderson wrote, "I've been damaged, and I make no apology in seeking monetary compensation for that damage and the effect on the balance of my career."
It is the AMA as a whole that's been damaged by this type of activity, Wolinsky says.
"They've got a CEO in place who's suing them," Wolinsky says. "They like to think they're in the corporate world. But in the corporate world, someone would move aside."