They may have come relatively late to the party, but physician-led political action committees have become true players on the political stage and are poised to exert their influence in this year’s elections.
Their efforts are beginning to pay off, PAC leaders say. Members of Congress are "much more forthcoming when you’ve built relationships in support of their campaign," said Dr. James N. Martin Jr., chair of Ob-GynPAC, representing the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).
"Nothing has put the Academy at the table like BrainPAC has," Michael J. Amery, legislative counsel to the American Academy of Neurology, said in an interview. "We literally did not exist in the eyes of Congress before the PAC was created."
As of early March, PACs in the overall health sector had donated some $72 million to federal candidates – those running for the White House or for seats in the House or Senate – in the 2011-2012 election cycle. That level of spending ranked it as the fifth-leading source of money by sector, according to OpenSecrets.org, an election-information database compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics from Federal Elections Commission records.
OpenSecrets defines the health sector as pharmaceutical companies, medical device makers, hospitals, insurers, nursing homes, pharmacy benefit management companies, and professional societies, among others.
So far in the 2011-2012 cycle, physician-led organizations account for 5 of the top 11 donors in the health sector: the California-based Cooperative of American Physicians, the American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons, the American College of Radiology, the American Society of Anesthesiologists, and the American College of Emergency Physicians.
PACs that represent health professionals tend to give evenly to Democrats and Republicans. A particular candidate’s position on an issue generally holds more weight than does his or her party affiliation, experts told this news organization.
Although the first PAC was formed in 1944, doctors’ PACs are a much more recent phenomenon. "Physicians historically have not been very active in the political process," Dr. Howard T. "Bo" Walpole, chair of the American College of Cardiology’s ACC PAC, said in an interview. "It’s been a learning experience for most of us."
Most physician PACs were formed in the last 5-10 years. Generally, PACs are formed by unions, corporations, or professional organizations to pool money and donate it to candidates who support their agendas. PACs can give up to $5,000 to a candidate or $15,000 to a national party committee per election cycle. Donations to PACs are limited to $5,000.
AMPAC – representing the American Medical Association – was seen as the voice of American medicine for decades. But as other groups have become more politically active, specialty-specific PACs have grown, and AMPAC, at least in the current cycle, seems to be lagging.
In 2008, AMPAC contributed $1.5 million to candidates. Two years later, that donation dropped to $1.3 million, and just edged out NEMPAC (the National Emergency Medicine PAC sponsored by the American College of Emergency Physicians) for the top spot among health professionals’ PACs. And this year, AMPAC fund-raising has slipped. At about $173,000 for the AMA and its affiliates, it is being dwarfed by a number of other physician PACs. The AMA did not respond to requests for interviews.
As recently as 2000, the American College of Physicians and the American Academy of Family Physicians were both debating whether to establish a PAC. Now, primary care is holding its own. The ACP says it represents 116,000 members; the AAFP, 100,300 members. In the 2012 cycle, FamMedPAC has donated $221,500 (making it the 14th biggest health professionals PAC), while ACP Services PAC has donated $95,000 (No. 31), according to OpenSecrets.
At the 9th position among health professionals PACs for this election cycle, ACC PAC (donating $310,000) has trumpeted its PAC success on its blog. ACC PAC began in 2002, and has been a leading contributor over the last few election cycles. With $1 million raised so far, it is among the 10 largest health sector PACs, according to Dr. Walpole.
The AAN, with 25,000 members, also has quickly grown BrainPAC, established in 2007. The PAC has raised more than $500,000 in that time, most of it coming over the last two election cycles. And that’s with only 5%-6% of the membership participating, said Mr. Amery.
Dr. Martin of Ob-GynPAC noted that the PAC contributions help physicians gain access. "Those legislators will hear you out and be open to hearing what you want," he said. The PAC is pushing for liability reform, protection of Medicaid funding, and any legislation that helps benefit women’s health, he said.