Doctors hope cash can move legislation
By ALISA ULFERTS, Times Staff Writer
TALLAHASSEE -- While political contributions routinely open doors in the state capital, a letter signed by two Marion County doctors offers an unusually frank description of the connection between campaign cash and legislation.
The letter sent to other Marion County doctors last week describes plans to discuss medical malpractice legislation next month with two powerful legislative leaders, incoming Senate President Jim King of Jacksonville and incoming House Speaker Johnnie Byrd of Plant City.
The doctors wrote that they want to go to each meeting bearing gifts: $10,000 in campaign contributions to the Florida Republican Party.
"Talk is cheap, however, and if we are to get their attention, it is important that we show up with sufficient funds to convince them that we are serious," wrote Ocala allergist Karl Altenburger, the immediate past president of the Florida Medical Association's political action committee.
"We are asking that you make a contribution to the Republican Party of Florida (There is no limit) and send this to us as soon as possible. ... We have been directed to bring at least $10,000 to each of these events and we can do this if everyone helps."
Altenburger said the association's political leadership suggested that $10,000 would be enough to catch the eye of Byrd and King.
King said Monday the money might catch his eye, but he said it won't buy his vote.
"This puts me between a dog and a fire hydrant," said King, who is raising money for Senate races throughout the state.
If he does allow medical malpractice bills to be voted on next year, he said, people will think he's been paid off. If the Senate doesn't pass such legislation, he said, people will assume the doctors couldn't afford his price.
King said he plans to appoint a study commission in 2003 and have legislation ready for a vote the following year.
Although he won't turn money down when he speaks to the doctors Aug. 31, King said drawing a connection between money and legislation in a fundraising letter "is awkward at best and sleazy at worst."
Byrd did not return several telephone calls for comment.
The doctors deserve no more blame than anyone else engaged in politics, said Ben Wilcox, who tracks political fundraising and spending for Common Cause, a government watchdog group. Wilcox said he isn't surprised that the doctors are planning to bring $10,000 each to Byrd and King. He is surprised that they put those plans in writing.
"Obviously they are recognizing that this is how the game is played," Wilcox said. "You pay to play."
In addition to the $10,000 that the doctors hope to raise for their meetings with the legislative leaders, FMA's political action committee president James Dolan thinks the group will spend $1-million in campaign contributions this year if it wants to see any legislation passed in 2003.
"What I have to do is demonstrate to the (Republican) party or an individual lawmaker that if I ask him to do something that puts a target, a bull's-eye, on him that I have the resources to cover him," Dolan said.
What doctors will be asking lawmakers to do is place themselves in the cross-hairs of the trial lawyers, a group that opposes limits on lawsuits and has plenty of money to spend against its opponents.
"Money buys you access," said Madelyn Butler, a Tampa obstetrician and treasurer of the medical association PAC. Butler said she spends hours on the phone trying to raise money for King and Byrd. A fundraiser for Gov. Jeb Bush that Butler held in her Tampa neighborhood earlier this year netted more than $200,000.
Butler said it's not a side of medicine she likes to practice, but it's one she says is necessary to stanch the flow of doctors leaving medicine because they can't afford medical malpractice insurance.
"Doctors think politics are dirty," Butler said, "(but) what we're now seeing in Tampa is a crisis."
Doctors are retiring or moving to other states rather than practice in a high-risk field like obstetrics, where doctors have seen their insurance premiums rise as high as $100,000 for a policy that's worth $250,000. FMA officials said doctors are increasing their campaign contributions in an effort to win reforms in the Legislature.
"They're so mad now that many of them have awakened. Some of them are willing to write checks where they may not have been before," said Steve West, a Fort Myers cardiologist and vice president of the medical association PAC.
"We don't go to medical school for this. We go to medical school to take care of patients. But our profession is in trouble," West said.
At St. Joseph's-Baptist Health Care in Hillsborough County, doctors have asked for a change in hospital bylaws that would allow them to continue practicing without malpractice insurance.
At Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater, more than 100 doctors signed a letter asking for a similar change. The request is under study.
Medical association representatives say they want laws passed this year requiring expert witnesses in medical cases to be licensed in Florida and specialists in the field they are testifying about. They also want a constitutional amendment in 2004 to cap pain and suffering damages to $250,000. They estimate that effort will cost at least $20-million.
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