The Virginia Senate approved today, over the objections of the two physicians in the chamber, a bill that would require doctors to disclose any financial interest they have in services or facilities to which they refer their patients.
The legislation was introduced by Del. Warren G. Stambaugh (D-Arlington) at the request of physical therapists, who have complained they are losing patients to orthopedic physicians who are insisting that their patients use clinics that the doctors own.
Sen. Clarence A. Holland (D-Virginia Beach) and Sen. John C. Buchanan (D-Wise), both of whom are family doctors, unsuccessfully sought to have the legislation referred again to committee for further study, a maneuver that would have killed the bill. When that failed, they both voted against it, saying later that they did not consider their votes to constitute a conflict of interest.
The bill passed 25 to 12, and was sent to Gov. Gerald L. Baliles for his signature.
Holland said he was not opposed to the idea of requiring doctors to disclose their financial interests. He said he was concerned that the bill might mean that neither he nor any of the three other doctors in his office could send a patient to the laboratory they operate to "find out right away if he has an infection."
Told of Holland's concern, Stambaugh said, "If he the physician is making money on it, what's the harm in telling the patient: 'We're going to do the work in my office and you'll get a separate charge for it.' "
Buchanan said it could "work to the detriment of the patient" by raising unwarranted suspicions in the minds of patients who are referred to another doctor or clinic.
"God forbid we should tell the patient too much," Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) shot back sarcastically. He recalled that "the Medical Society of Virginia fought for three years" his bill to require doctors to inform women undergoing exploratory breast surgery that they might have to undergo a mastectomy in the same operation. The doctors, Saslaw said, argued against such disclosures "because it might scare" the patients.
Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Fairfax) called the disclosure bill "a simple consumer measure letting patients know" about their doctors' financial interests. Gartlan said his former law firm owns a title insurance company to which it refers clients, "but the Canon of Ethics requires that we disclose our interest."
Bruce B. Kenney, a lobbyist representing the Virginia Physical Therapy Association, in a letter to senators, wrote that "a select few physicians were prohibiting their patients from obtaining physical therapy services from any facility other than the one they owned."