Medical groups pick sides in state Senate race

Chiropractors and physicians clash in the GOP primary between Frank Farkas and Kim Berfield.

Published May 30, 2006

Frank Farkas is a chiropractor, so it's not surprising that he has collected more than $25,000 from fellow chiropractors in his campaign to win a Pinellas-Hillsborough state Senate seat.

Meanwhile, his opponent in the Republican primary, Kim Berfield, has snared contributions from a different part of the medical sector. She has won the support of the Florida Medical Association's political action committee and has received 225 donations from medical practices and doctors.

Just in case there was any doubt chiropractors and medical doctors are clashing, the Florida Medical Association's political action committee last year sent a letter to its members urging them to support Berfield instead of Farkas.

The letter read: "Do you want another chiropractor in the Florida Senate dictating health care policy for the state of Florida? Only you can decide what the defeat of this anti-physician legislator is worth to your practice.

Farkas called the letter offensive.

As the campaign season moves into high gear, one thing is clear: In this two-county Senate district, medical money is playing a major role. And the two Republican candidates have won financial support from different parts of the medical sector.

Senate District 16 spans two counties and includes portions of St. Petersburg, Safety Harbor and Tampa.

The race is notable because it pits three incumbent state representatives who represent Pinellas County against each other. Farkas of St. Petersburg and Berfield of Clearwater will face each other in the Sept. 5 Republican primary. The winner will face Democrat Charlie Justice of St. Petersburg in the Nov. 7 general election.

The race also is considered one of the most competitive Senate races in the state, meaning insiders from both parties believe either party has a chance of taking the seat. For that reason, the state party organizations are expected to pour plenty more money into the race.

Sen. Steven Geller, head of the Senate Democratic campaigns, said he expects Justice's campaign contributions and the Democratic Party's help will combine to pour more than $2-million into this race. He also predicted Republicans will spend even more, and that no other state Senate race in Florida will attract more campaign cash.

Berfield and Farkas have each raised about a-third of a million dollars - $388,187 for Berfield and $319,798 for Farkas.

And about a third of the money has come from medical interests - at least $124,350 for Berfield and $104,488 for Farkas.

Justice has raised a much smaller amount, $53,850, with no single interest group playing an obviously dominant role. But Justice said he can raise more money now that the legislative session has concluded, and that party money will help him as well. He said he is confident he will get his message out.

Farkas' $25,000 from chiropractors could be a low estimate. His campaign reports include 49 donations from people who listed their occupation as physicians, but at least a couple are chiropractic physicians.

Farkas, a past chairman of the House Health Care Committee, also has won support from political action committees representing dentists, osteopathic physicians and others. Although Berfield has taken the bulk of the medical doctors' contributions, at least one group, the Florida Society of Anesthesiologists, has given Farkas $500.

Farkas said he has worked with many of those groups, which is why they are confident supporting him.

"Frank is a chiropractor, so he's in the health care community, and he's been chairman of the Health Care Committee in the past,'' said James Walton, chairman of the Florida Dental PAC. He said the group's $500 donation was nothing against Berfield, whom he also considered a good candidate.

Farkas has sometimes sparked controversy with health care initiatives, such as when he introduced legislation in 2002 that would have allowed insurance companies to devise policies that would not have required them to cover some procedures that currently are mandatory, such as mammograms. He said then that the idea was to allow insurance companies to provide lower-cost policies for those who couldn't afford insurance.

But Farkas said he is proud of his health care record, pointing to a 2004 bill he championed that was designed to increase consumer options for affordable health care.

Asked why the Florida Medical Association is supporting Berfield, Farkas said it may be because he supported a bill that would have prevented doctors from going without malpractice insurance.

Michael Wasylik, a Tampa orthopedic surgeon and member of Hillsborough County's medical PAC, agreed that the "going bare" legislation was one drawback to Farkas.

But Wasylik said doctors also support Berfield "because she's someone who has always listened to us over the years."

"She's certainly always been someone whose door was always open," he said.

Although medical doctors sometimes look askance at the chiropractic profession, Wasylik said that's not the reason medical doctors are choosing Farkas' opponent. He said doctors realize "chiropractors are health care professionals, and I think they're trying to take care of people also.''

Berfield said she thinks the doctors' support may be because she has "a philosophy that aligns me with that profession," but did not cite any particular issues. She said she does try to have an open door with doctors as well as other groups of constituents.

Justice, who will campaign against one of the Republicans in the general election, said, "I don't pretend that we'll raise as much as they will, but we're going to raise enough."

Times researcher Connie Humburg contributed to this report.