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Doctors' union bid launched

Wellness Plan's effort could set national pace

January 25, 2000

BY SHERYL KENNEDY
FREE PRESS BUSINESS WRITER

The American Medical Association has picked Detroit to launch its effort to unionize the nation's doctors.

The AMA-created Physicians for Responsible Negotiations last week asked the National Labor Relations Board in Detroit whether PRN could serve as the collective bargaining unit for a group of at least 27 doctors employed by the Wellness Plan, a Medicaid health maintenance organization.

A decision by the labor relations board is expected Feb. 11 and might set the tone on the national and local levels about whether physicians can successfully organize themselves through the group.

If the board approves the request, the Wellness Plan physicians would be the first group in the nation represented by the AMA's 2-month-old labor negotiating arm. The AMA is among the nation's largest professional physicians' group.

Officials at the more than 125,000-member Wellness Plan said the unionization of its doctors could have a profound effect on the HMO, which is suffering from multimillion dollar losses because of deep cuts in Medicaid reimbursements.

"We are the national test case," said Sam McCargo, senior vice president and associate general counsel for the HMO. "We are in the seat of the labor movement, so we are not taking it personally that they chose us because strategically, it appears to be a good decision."

"We are not against organized labor, but we don't believe a union at this time would be the best way for us to enhance and develop our patient relationships," he said. "If this happens, it will cause huge changes for the Wellness Plan, and it's too soon to tell if that will be good or bad."

He conceded that communications have been poor between the HMO's administration and physicians.

That might have forced physicians to seek help from PRN.

"We were approached by the physicians because they wanted a contract and wanted a say as to how they take care of their patients," said Dr. Susan Hershberg Adelman, president of PRN and a pediatric surgeon from Southfield. "I'm excited about this group being our first because they are interested in all the right things."

In a hotly debated decision characterized as a defining moment in health care, the AMA voted in June to form a union for some of its physician members.

The AMA said it was time to help doctors organize because of the workload and financial pressures put on physicians by health maintenance organizations and other managed-care companies trying to cut costs.

"PRN was authorized by physicians of the AMA to bring physicians' voices to the table when their ability to act on behalf of their patients is threatened by decision-making practices of employers who seek to exclude those physicians' voices," said Dr. Ted Lewers, chairman of the board of trustees for the Chicago-based AMA.

SHERYL KENNEDY can be reached at 313-222-8762 or kennedy@freepress.com.

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