The New York Times is reporting that the American Medical Association will be lobbying Congress to oppose a public health insurance program, an integral part of health reform. In an attempt at damage control, the AMA has responded with a statement declaring it would support a public option if it operates like a for-profit insurance agency. In effect, the AMA still opposes reform. While Igor Volsky details the various reasons why the member physicians of the AMA should support a public health insurance program, it is important to consider that the AMA as an institution is not a neutral player simply representing doctors. Started in the mid 19th century as an accrediting organization, the AMA has morphed into a behemoth lobbying and member services entity that is deeply entwined with the for-profit health industry.
In the past century, the growth of AMA has been not only funded by health industry lobbies such as drug makers, but this relationship has tailored AMA’s anti-reform policy agenda. In reading the Huffington Post and the New America Foundation articles revealing AMA’s opposition to health reform during the New Deal, its efforts to block the passage of Medicare, and the AMA’s critical role in defeating health reform in 1993, questions arise over why the AMA has historically opposed any initiative to take health care out of the hands of the for-profit health industry.
In the first 50 years after its inception, the AMA struggled to fill its coffers. Because member dues were deemed insufficient to fund its various activities, the AMA eventually decided to sell advertising space for its medical journal JAMA to drug companies. Expanding on this business model, AMA President George Simmons decided to create the “AMA seal-of-approval” for favored drugs in 1899, resulting in a five-fold increase in advertising revenue by 1909. Simmons, it turned out, had no credible medical credentials and the AMA did no drug testing for the products given the seal-of-approval.
Simmons was later driven out of the AMA, but his model for extracting fees for branding medical practices and products persisted. Simmons’ focus on molding public opinion also became one of the greatest weapons of the AMA – his “Propaganda Department” would soon expand to communicate the AMA’s views through a column syndicated published in over 200 newspapers, a weekly radio program, and various books about how homeopathic practices and non-AMA approved drugs were “quackery.”
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