Doctors to fight on against `matching'

Congress tries to block disputes over hiring

April 14, 2004|By Julie Bell | Julie Bell,SUN STAFF

A group of young doctors, including a former fellow at Johns Hopkins, is vowing to pursue its antitrust challenge to the "matching" system hospitals use to choose medical residents, after Congress quietly enacted legislation aimed at stopping the lawsuit cold.

Slipped into an unrelated pension bill President Bush signed into law over the weekend, the language specifically exempts from antitrust legislation a system that, the plaintiffs say, leads to underpaid and overworked staff. "I am disappointed that a few members of Congress refused to allow a public debate over working conditions and unsafe hours for young doctors," Dr. Paul Jung, the former Johns Hopkins University fellow, said in a statement.

But the American Association of Medical Colleges and the University of Maryland Medical School were among those hailing the law yesterday, saying the National Resident Matching Program has benefited medical students and resident programs for more than 50 years.

The program now uses a computer to pair the choices of more than 25,000 medical school graduates with those of institutions hiring new medical residents. Proponents say it replaced a chaotic system that tended to benefit students with connections at particular hospitals.

The plaintiffs argued that the system limits competition and leaves residents with no choice but to take the job with which they're matched.

Yesterday they said that Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts intervened to insert the provision exempting the hospitals during a conference committee on an unrelated measure to ensure quick passage without debate.

Gregg's office did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for Kennedy said the senator believed that hospitals and medical schools had been well-served by the program.

Jung and other plaintiffs filed the lawsuit in May 2002 in U.S. District Court in Washington, claiming the program limits hospital competition, artificially depresses wages and inflates residents' work hours in ways that harm patient care.

Sherman Marek, the plaintiffs' attorney, said yesterday that he doesn't expect the law to block the suit. He said an exemption in the law allows price-fixing suits to go forward, and that Jung's class-action suit qualifies.

Lewis A. Noonberg, who teaches about antitrust law and health care at the University of Maryland School of Law, said the outcome might turn on whether the court views the matching system as one that allocates a commodity - young doctors - or one that sets prices, meaning their salaries.

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