The Rise of the PAC Doc

March 1, 2004

Political action committees let this physician put his money where his political passions are

Paul Collins, MD, embodies the growing power of physicians in politics. 

By day he repairs injured knees and shoulders, but in his off hours he helps elect candidates to Congress.

A board-certified orthopedic surgeon in Boise, Idaho, Collins affects patient healthcare beyond the four walls of a medical office or operating room. The aviation enthusiast and avid outdoorsman is an Airman Medical Examiner, testing pilots' fitness. He also writes a column for the Idaho Statesman, the state's largest newspaper, advising readers how to avoid sports injuries.

But it's in the political realm that Collins may loom largest. 
Collins began his involvement in politics 25 years ago, part of a successful effort to change Idaho's liability laws. "I saw the clear benefit of my involvement," he recalls. Since then he has written checks for thousands of dollars to candidates and political action committees (PACs).

In Republican-dominated Idaho, Collins is a solid source of contributions to most of the state's GOP officeholders, including U.S. Senators Larry Craig and Mike Crapo, and its two Congressmen, Butch Otter and Mike Simpson. All four are stalwarts in supporting the Bush administration push to establish caps on lawsuits in medical malpractice cases and boost Medicare reimbursements to physicians. (Collins also occasionally gives money to Democrats.)

His enthusiasm for the work of the American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons' PAC prompted Collins to "max out," giving the annual legal limit of $5,000 last year, and regularly serving as its physician chair.

Collins is passionate about his PAC work: "Talking to other doctors in a doctors' lounge doesn't get the job done," he says. "We must go to legislators with facts and our opinions. The best way to do that is with a concerted effort of a PAC that has staff and resources to show legislators the impact their decisions have on patients."

The American Medical Association continues to be the dean of physician political contributions, raising over $2 million during last year's election cycle. But the specialty PACs are nipping at their heels. Collins' PAC brought in over $440,000 last year; the PAC for anesthesiologists, over $700,000.

This represents a change. Many medical societies were founded to educate their members. For years, their leaders eschewed politics. But as government's role in the lives and health of patients grew, more physicians got involved. 

"If we leave decisions about healthcare to people who are not physicians, I fear the outcomes of our patients will be affected," Collins says.

Political leaders say the decision to boost Medicare reimbursements is a direct result of strong advocacy by physicians, lobbyists, and physician PACs. As medicine continues to be a "political football, it's necessary that we suit up," says Collins. If physicians continue to follow the example of Dr. Collins and thousands of other physicians, what could be next?

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This article originally appeared in the March 2004 issue of Physicians Practice.