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Dubious honor for local doctors 

When Mindy Oshrain's phone rang a few days after Thanksgiving with a message that she'd been selected as an honorary chairman for a national physician's advisory board, she was not impressed.

Her interest wasn't piqued by the fact that the call came from Congressman Tom DeLay's office, nor was she surprised that the message mentioned she'd been chosen for a national leadership award.

This is the third such call that Oshrain, a psychiatrist practicing at Duke, has received in the past six months. And by now, even without returning the message, she knows it's all about fundraising--political fundraising, that is.

Here's what the message said: "Hi Dr. Oshrain. My name's Barbara Livingston with Congressman Tom DeLay and the Physicians Advisory Board in Washington. You've been selected to serve as an honorary chairman from North Carolina on our physician's advisory board and receive our national leadership award. I need to speak to you about a press release. My number is 1-866-858-8367. I would appreciate it if you call me as soon as you get this message."

The first time she got the call, "I thought, 'I haven't done anything really'" to deserve an award, Oshrain says. "So I looked it up on the Web and found an article describing where these messages are coming from." The source turns out to be the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), which has targeted doctors--among other professionals--for a special fund-raising appeal.

The pitch invites physicians to join a board advising GOP leaders on health care issues. Once they agree, the docs are promptly hit with a request for a $500 donation to the NRCC. Since it was created two years ago, thousands of doctors have apparently been asked to join the Physicians Advisory Board--and donate to the GOP. But it's not clear whether the group has ever met or whether and how its opinions are relayed to Republican lawmakers.

When asked about the advisory board by AMNews, the newspaper of the American Medical Association, NRCC officials refused to say how many doctors have joined the board or how much money has been raised through the appeal.

"The Physician's Advisory Board was set up because physicians have a unique perspective on many issues before Congress," Carl Forti, the NRCC's deputy communications director was quoted as saying. "There is a fundraising component. But that's not the only function."

The situation has led some medical groups, such as the American Chiropractic Association, to warn members about the "aggressive GOP fund-raising strategy." The watchdog group Common Cause is even more blunt, calling the NRCC's telemarketing appeal, "predatory, deceptive and downright sleazy."

Doctors aren't the only professionals the GOP has targeted for donations. Last spring, a local small business owner reported receiving a fund raising call from a Republican congressman in Virginia that began with an offer to join a "small business committee" to help shape national business policy. (See "Aiming the Pitch," The Independent, April 17, 2002).

Oshrain says she's tried to call the number left on her machine "just to tell them this is ridiculous," but she's always gotten a busy signal. She's notified the N.C. Psychiatric Association that she and at least one other colleague have been receiving calls to join the Physicians Advisory Board.

Does she often give to political causes? "Not any that these folks would get my name from," Oshrain says.

The recently passed national ban on "soft money" donations to political parties may make appeals like the NRCC's a thing of the past. Then again, there are those campaign debts from this year's elections to think about. Funds raised to retire those debts may get in under the campaign reform law wire--at least until January 2003.And reform groups report that both major parties are looking for every way possible to get around the new law, including setting up what are essentially front organizations to raise soft money for congressional races.

For her part, Oshrain says her main objection to the NRCC's approach isn't mainly political, but moral. "It's just so deceptive and fraudulent," she says. "It's really preying on people thinking that they're doing something good in the world -- physicians who are out there taking care of people and who'd like to be recognized for that."

The North Carolina Medical Society says it's not unusual for doctors to be asked to serve on political advisory committees, since health care remains a key national issue. But they haven't received any specific complaints about the NRCC's recent calls to doctors.

Neither has the N.C. Attorney General's Office. But if anyone wants to report in, staff members say they'll be happy to do some research. Call 716-6000 and ask for the Consumer Protection division.

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