The ‘incredibly sad’ turmoil threatening to split the AMA

The money that AMA state branches pay to the federal AMA has become a source of anger.
Professor Steve Robson.

Professor Steve Robson says the kicking out of AMA WA members is not a crisis for the federal AMA but an “incredibly sad” situation.

Last night, the AMA president and board sent a email informing around 5000 WA doctors they were no longer part of the national organisation owing to AMA WA’s failure to hand over hundreds of thousands of dollars in membership fees.

It has emerged that, for the past 18 months, the two sides have been in negotiations about how much the state body and its membership should contribute to fund the work of the federal AMA. 

AMA WA is arguing that the fees it hands over — around $2 million a year — did not represent “reasonable value”. 

Professor Robson said both sides had been working towards an agreed deadline to resolve the stand-off, but they could not reach a solution by the time it expired.

“Everyone in the federal AMA is incredibly sad,” he told AusDoc. 

“Negotiations went on and on until we reached the deadline, yet neither side was satisfied. 

“They were not remitting any fees, which means AMA WA members were not financial members of the federal AMA.” 

He said one way out was to go through formal mediation with a third party but added: “We are open to other ideas.”

AMA WA president Dr Michael Page claimed that discontent with payments made by the state branches to the federal AMA was widespread, with Queensland, Victoria and SA forming an alliance to force reform of federal and state relations. 

“We have had no formal agreement with the federal AMA on our contribution since 2018,” Dr Page told AusDoc

“We have refused to sign up, but over that time, we have made the contributions, and we have continued to do so as an act of good faith while we try to resolve the issue.”

He claimed, while views among doctors varied, many of the WA state members did not see the federal AMA as value for money.

Referring to the AMA’s decision to expel the membership from the federation, Dr Page said: “This is not a terminal event. I refuse to accept that what we have now will become the status quo.

“We will continue to fight for reform.”

Victoria and SA are yet to comment officially.

But Queensland AMA president Dr Maria Boulton backed the call for reform and said she was “very disappointed” with how AMA WA had been cut loose.

“We believe unity is essential to advocacy,” she said.

“We do not support the decision to end negotiations.”

Professor Robson defended the annual cost of funding the federal AMA, estimated to be around $12 million a year.

“So many issues are Commonwealth based, the MBS being a major one, and AMA federal was set up to advocate on these issues,” he said.

“Things like bulk-billing incentives, which have now been tripled, the National Health Reform Agreement and MyMedicare need a single voice at a Commonwealth level.

“Nobody else can provide what we provide.”

It is not the first public stoush between the federal AMA and a state counterpart, suggesting tensions have been running for some time.

Two years ago, AMA Victoria decided to create an associate member category with cut-price fees, where no money flowed through to the federal AMA.

While this caused ructions, AMA Victoria and the federal AMA went on to settle their disagreements, according to Melbourne-based former AMA president Dr Mukesh Haikerwal.

AMA Victoria dropped the associate membership and instead renegotiated its fee splitting arrangements with the federal AMA, he said.

“These things are nothing new — they have been going on since before I was president back in 2005,” Dr Haikerwal told AusDoc.

“There has always been tension between state and federal offices.

“But you negotiate your way through it.”

He said it was possible that AMA members could now call for an EGM.

“To come to this situation, where one of the most successful state AMAs is no longer able to participate in the federation, is a very bad outcome and one that should be reversed as soon as possible,” he said.