The GOP’s Fake Doctor Council

How Obamacare opponents scam physicians and the public.

Click here for a guide to following the health care reform story online.

Can the Republican Party draft a doctor, entirely against his will and political inclination, into the Kill Obamacare movement? Well, it can try. Here is what happened to a high-school acquaintance of mine, a physician and medical school professor, who prefers that I not use his name. I’ll call him Fred.

Fred received by fax a draft press release from Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., who is an orthopedist, head of the Republican Study Committee, and chairman of something called the Physicians’ Council for Responsible Reform. According to its Web site, this group seeks “to defeat Members of Congress who support ‘ObamaCare’ in the upcoming 2010 elections.” The PCRR is a front for the National Republican Congressional Committee. The draft press release listed Fred’s name along with 32 others as members of the council, “comprised of physicians who are respected by their peers.” These worthies, it said, “will be receiving special briefings and providing input to Republican members of Congress,” including House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio, “during their deliberations of the Obama administration’s efforts to reform health care.” On the draft press release, Fred’s name was circled and connected by a line to the margin note, “Your name here.”

A handwritten note on the cover sheet explained:

Because of your invaluable experience, we are asking you to represent California as a consultant on the Physicians’ Council.We’re running a press release to honor the achievements of you and other concerned physicians like you. Please call me with your approval at 1-877-416-7188.

Fred phoned the number and was connected to an employee at an InfoCision call center in Austintown, Ohio. The employee pretended to work for the Physicians’ Council. This person played Fred a prerecorded message from Rep. Price:

There’s a very real threat of Washington interfering even more with doctors’ efforts to provide the best possible care for their patients. And I’m afraid that declining reimbursements, frivolous lawsuits, and total governmental control of health care could be just the beginning of our worries. … Please stay on the line for my assistant, who will explain how I’d like for you to get involved. Your input is vital to our efforts.

But Rep. Price’s “assistant,” Fred says, assured him that his “input” would consist entirely of having his name listed on the press release. This agrees with the testimony of another M.D. on the Daily Kos, who said he was told “it would require absolutely no time commitment.”

The NRCC’s Physicians’ Council is dishonest in two ways.

  1. Quite obviously there is no Physicians’ Council for Responsible Reform. Serving on a real council requires some commitment of time. You can’t receive “special briefings” and provide “input to Republican members of Congress” if you’re just a name on a page. The real purpose is to identify doctors riled up enough about Obamacare that they’ll give money to the NRCC. (Good luck getting that face time with Minority Leader Boehner if you don’t write a check.) Since June, the NRCC has raised more than $1.2 million this way.
  2. Fred believes that had he never phoned back and requested his name be removed, it would have remained there. When I asked a call center employee whether that was true, I was told it was not. But the draft press release did imply, falsely, that the other physicians listed had already agreed to be on the council. Yet when I phoned another name on the list—an oncologist in Missouri whom I’ll call Dr. Blank because, like Fred, he never asked to be included—I was told that Dr. Blank had not agreed to join. The NRCC is employing a variation on the old Georgetown dinner-party trick of leveraging Henry Kissinger by saying Alice Roosevelt Longworth is coming, then leveraging Alice Roosevelt Longworth by saying Henry Kissinger is coming. When committed on a large scale for a purpose weightier than social climbing, we call this fraud.

Another PCRR solicitation faxed to yet another doctor has been posted on the liberal Web site Think Progress. This draft press release contains an entirely different set of names from the one with Fred’s name. That suggests assembling members for the Physician’s Council requires quite a lot of energetic prospecting, as fundraising typically does.

Some physicians, I should note, were tickled pink to be asked to join the NRCC’s phony council. Dr. Michael Richman, a heart surgeon in Los Angeles whose name appears neither on Fred’s version of the draft press release nor on the one obtained by Think Progress, put out a press release announcing his selection to the panel. So did Dr. Richard Stanford, a pediatrician in Oklahoma City. (Stanford’s name can’t be found on Fred’s or Think Progress’s versions, either.) This is like putting out a press release to announce that somebody phoned and asked you to donate to the United Way.

I put in a call to Rep. Price’s office to find out more about the PCRR. They referred me to the NRCC. A press representative who called back said he didn’t know anything about the Physicians’ Council and would have to get back to me.

I phoned the InfoCision call center and asked for some information about the PCRR. I was referred to Jessica Boulanger at the NRCC. When I phoned the NRCC, I was informed that nobody named Jessica Boulanger worked there. (Apparently, she used to.)

I phoned the InfoCision call center again and asked for Sabrina Taylor, the contact name on Fred’s draft press release. I was told she was busy. I asked if Sabrina could call me back. This seemed to flummox the person I was speaking to. “Does Sabrina Taylor exist?” I asked. Yes, I was assured. I left my name and number. Sabrina didn’t call back.

I phoned InfoCision yet again and asked for Candace Lyons. This was an entirely different contact listed on the version of the draft press release posted on the Think Progress Web site. Candace Lyons was also busy. Could Candace could call me back? Once again, this request seemed highly irregular. “Does Candace Lyons exist?” Yes. Candace didn’t call back.

I phoned InfoCision’s public relations office and got a very nice-sounding woman who said she’d get back to me. She didn’t.

InfoCision, I can’t resist mentioning, took home the “Best Practices” award in May from the Interactive Intelligence Interactions conference in Indianapolis.

Update, 7:40 p.m.: From NRCC spokesman Paul Lindsay:

Given the heightened attention to this debate, we established an outlet for the medical providers who would be most affected by the Democrats’ fatally flawed government healthcare takeover.  The Physician’s Council for Responsible Reform is a grassroots and fundraising operation that engages these professionals who are passionate about healthcare reform but are opposed to a Democrat plan that would limit competition and harm the doctor-patient relationship.

An NRCC fact sheet spells out member benefits for the Physicians’ Council. $50 to $500 gets your name in an ad campaign. $500 to $999 gets you “special closed door briefings.” $1000 to $2499 gets you into a “limited invitation” video or teleconference and the opportunity to be on a panel in Washington. $2500 to $4999 gets you the opportunity to communicate “with key decisionmakers in Washington, DC” by e-mail and in special “trustee meetings.” Anything above $5000 get you … media training!