Congress is back this week and feverishly working on a bipartisan agreement to fund the government for the rest of the 2024 fiscal year. Ahead of a potential vote, I spoke with Jesse Ehrenfeld, the president of the American Medical Association, the nation’s largest lobby group for doctors, about his organization’s priorities in Washington. 

Some background: Ehrenfeld is a Wisconsin anesthesiologist, researcher and medical school professor who also directs a health-care philanthropy in his state. He’s an Afghanistan combat veteran, the first openly gay president of the AMA and a national advocate for LGBTQ+ rights.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity. You can hear the whole interview later today on “What the Health?”

Rovner: Congress is coming back and working on a budget, or so we hear. I know physicians are facing, again, a cut in Medicare pay, but that’s not the only AMA priority here in Washington at the moment, right? [Note: A 3.37 percent cut to Medicare physician payments took effect Jan. 1.]

Ehrenfeld: It’s unconscionable. And so we’re optimistic that we can get a fix, hopefully retroactive, as the omnibus consolidation work goes forward.

Physicians continue to struggle. My parents lost their own primary care physician because of a challenge with their primary care doctor not being able to take Medicare anymore. And what we’re seeing is more and more doctors just stopping seeing new Medicare patients, or opting out of the program entirely.

Rovner: Now we have the Supreme Court — none of whom have an M.D., as far as I know — about to decide whether doctors [treating] women with pregnancy emergencies should obey state abortion bans, the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, or their medical ethics, all of which may conflict. What’s the AMA doing to help doctors navigate these very choppy and changing legal waters?  

Ehrenfeld: Choppy is a good word for it. It’s confusing. And since the Dobbs decision, we have been working with all of our state and federation partners to try to help physicians navigate this. It’s unbelievable that now physicians are having to call their attorneys, the hospital legal counsel, to figure out what they can and can’t do. And, obviously, this is not a picture that supports women’s health. So we are optimistic that we might get a positive ruling with this EMTALA decision on the Supreme Court. But, obviously, there’s a long way that we need to go to make sure that we can maintain access for reproductive care.

Rovner: Do you think that’s something that has dawned on the rest of the members of the AMA that this is not necessarily about abortion, this is about the ability to practice medicine?  

Ehrenfeld: If you look at some of these socially charged restrictive laws, whether it’s in transgender health or abortion access, or other items, we take the same foundational approach, which is that physicians and patients ought to be making their health-care decisions without legislative interference. 

Rovner: It’s not just abortion and reproductive health where lawmakers are trying to dictate medical practice, but also care for transgender kids and adults and even treatment for covid and other infectious diseases. What are you doing to fight the sort of “pushing against” scientific discourse?  

Ehrenfeld: Our foundation in 1847 was to get rid of quackery and snake-oil salesmen in medicine. And yet here we are trying to do some of those same things with misinformation, disinformation. And obviously, even if you look at the attack on PrEP, preexposure prophylaxis for HIV prevention — making it basically zero out-of-pocket cost for many Americans — [not providing PrEP is] just unconscionable. We have treatments. We know that they work. We ought to make sure that patients and their physicians can have access to them.

Rovner: Artificial intelligence can portend huge advances and also other issues, not all of which are good. How is the AMA trying to push [medicine] more toward the former, the good things, and less toward the latter, the unintended consequences?  

Ehrenfeld: We need to make sure that we have appropriate regulation. The [Food and Drug Administration] doesn’t have the framework that they need.  We just need to make sure that those changes only let safe and effective algorithms, AI tools, AI-powered products come to the marketplace.

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