Doctors, dentists and a pride of other professionals are lobbying Congress fiercely for an exemption from federal price-fixing and consumer-protection rules. Unless the public objects strongly -- and quickly -- to their senators and representatives, the professionals have a good shot at winning.
A victory could raise the price of many professional services, reduce the flow of price information to consumers and, depending on the wording of the final bill, wipe out 18 months of painful government effort to open up the professional services market to honest competition. Several major cases and consent agreements won by the government would be overturned. All ongoing investigations and marketplace studies would be stopped.
At issue are amendments that could come before Congress as early as December, attached to a bill reauthorizing the existence of the Federal Trade Commission. They would eliminate, entirely, all FTC jurisdiction over state-licensed professionals. Unlike other business men, professionals would then be pretty much free to price-fix as they please.
Leading the battle (with a $2.3 million political-action war chest in 1982) is the American Medical Association, against whom the FTC has just won a major lawsuit. Other active trade associations include those for dentists, optometrists and veterinarians.
The professionals say they want out from under the FTC because they are being regulated to death. The truth is that the professionals themselves have been over-regulating the marketplace -- through their trade associations or informal combinations of doctors and dentists -- so as to keep prices up.
The FTC aroused their ire by breaking up their illegal boycotts against lower-priced competitors. If the proposed amendments pass, the anti-consumer monopolies and boycotts will be back in force.
The following six FTC cases give you some good examples of what's at stake. They were all won or settled by the government during the past 18 months. And they would all be overturned if one of the House amendments passes. At risk is:
* The case against the American Medical Association and certain area associations for restricting price competition. The illegal abuses included prohibitions against advertising which, among other things, stopped a church in Chattanooga, Tenn., from operating a low-cost cardiac stress clinic and drove a Kansas physician house-call service out of business. The AMA and its affiliates also took various actions against doctors willing to work for less than "usual" fees. The Supreme Court upheld the FTC's victory last March.
* The case against the Michigan State Medical Society, for conspiring to resist the cost-containment plans proposed by Medicaid and Blue Shield. Both insurers backed down, when faced with a threat by doctors to refuse Medicaid patients and to quit participating in Blue Shield. In this case, the FTC has won the first round.
* A consent agreement, prohibiting doctors from restricting competition. The only doctors in the small town of Brownfield, Tex., threatened to boycott the hospital's emergency-room patients, because the hospital planned to recruit another doctor. The FTC stopped the boycott, but the doctor who was going to Brownfield was scared away.
* The agreement with the Medical Society in Broward County, Fla., to lift its illegal ban on doctor advertising. This will permit local doctors to advertise such things as whether they speak Spanish or accept Medicare payments as reimbursement-in-full for medical treatment -- two important consumer issues to patients in the south Florida area.
* The agreement with the American Dental Association to end its illegal restrictions on dental advertising, and cases against dental groups for conspiring to resist cost-containment plans.
Even if the above cases are allowed to stand, the proposed amendments would free professionals to pursue similar anti-competitive actions in the future. For example, a medical group could deny malpractice insurance or hospital privileges to doctors working for lower-cost health maintenance organizations, and prevent nurses from running rural health clinics under doctor supervision (two more practices stopped by the FTC).
If you disapprove of what the professionals are doing to keep prices up, write to your senators and representatives, right now. It will take a strong outpouring of public opinion to force professionals to continue operating within all of the nation's laws.