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Washington loves doctors—or at least their money

Texas urologist René P. Grabato has been active in the Republican party since the Reagan Administration. But he was caught off guard when the National Republican Congressional Committee called to invite him to Washington in March to receive its Physician of the Year Award. "It was an honor and quite a surprise to receive this award," Grabato said in a release sent out by his hospital and picked up by his local paper.

What the story failed to mention was that Grabato's award came with a price tag-a $1,250 price tag, to be exact. That's what the NRCC charged each of the hundreds of doctors who were similarly honored at its dinner reception with special guest George W. Bush. ABC News gained access to the event with the help of one of those award recipients, Jamestown, NY, internist Rudolph J. Mueller, who agreed to wear a hidden camera and microphone.

"Basically, it's one big monstrous donation to the party," one of the attendees reportedly told Mueller. (The ABC report aired on April 5.)

The award program is the brainchild of embattled House Majority leader Tom DeLay (R-TX), who ABC reports "stopped direct involvement two years ago," despite his guest speaker status at this year's ceremony. DeLay is also the architect of a longer running NRCC program-the Physicians Advisory Board (Grabato is a member).

The NRCC Web site describes the advisory board as an opportunity for physicians to share their "wealth of knowledge and expertise" with lawmakers "as they begin to address the critical issues facing the healthcare system in this country." But the online application ends with a contribution request-"of at least $300."

The advisory board took a hit from organized medicine back in 2001, when the GOP and doctors sparred over the right to sue HMOs. A story in AMNews lampooned it "as a hook for soliciting contributions." And the Texas Medical Association warned its members not to be taken in by "misleading storefront groups" that don't have physicians' best interests at heart.

As for Grabato and the Physician of the Year Award, he may have been surprised by his good fortune, but he was under no illusions about the strings attached. "Whenever there's a function, there's always a contribution," he says. He's "shy" about any further publicity, however.

Other past recipients have been less so. They tout the award on their CVs and use it as a marketing tool to advertise their practices, without full disclosure. Notified of this, the AMA released a statement urging physicians to tell the truth in their advertising and marketing: "We urge that any published list of 'best physicians' include full disclosure of the selection criteria." It also cautioned doctors who are contacted by a political party or candidate "to ask questions so that there is a full understanding of [the] commitments, responsibilities, and benefits."

Sarah Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said that party has neither a "Physician of the Year Award" nor a physicians' advisory board.

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