JUNEAU (AP) -- The state Senate approved legislation Wednesday allowing doctors to collectively negotiate with insurance companies over fees and other matters without running afoul of antitrust laws.
Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, the bill's sponsor, said individual doctors can be left to the mercy of huge insurance companies that set fees and other conditions of medical care.
''One of the problems that we have now is that physicians are left with somewhat of a take-it-or-leave-it environment when they're dealing with large insurance companies that are getting larger and larger as time goes by,'' Kelly said.
Under state and federal antitrust laws, Kelly said, doctors cannot even meet to discuss an insurance company's conditions.
But Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, said no one has shown him that Kelly's bill is necessary.
''On a scale of things to be concerned about, that we're hired to come to Juneau to work on, and to worry about, doctors' incomes is just not at the top of my list compared to many other issues,'' Ellis said.
Any perceived benefits are outweighed by detrimental effect on individuals and small employers, Ellis said.
''I believe this bill will lead directly to higher costs for consumers,'' Ellis said.
Collective negotiations by doctors will lead to higher fees paid and higher insurance costs, Ellis said, and the inevitable result will be more people unable to purchase insurance for employees or themselves.
Kelly said the bill was not just about fees and doctors' incomes. He said it's also about patients and conditions that may be dictated by insurance companies, such as what constitutes necessary care.
As it stands, a doctor cannot walk across the hall and talk to a competitor about such conditions without violating antitrust laws, he said.
''That's what this bill hopes to mitigate,'' Kelly said. ''It allows them to discuss these things.''
He also noted that the bill makes negotiating with insurance companies voluntary.
''If the insurance companies choose not to negotiate with them, they don't have to,'' Kelly said.
Kelly's bill calls for doctor negotiations to be regulated by the Department of Law. Ellis said the provision probably does not meet federal requirements for exceptions to antitrust law.
Senators approved the bill 13-6 along Republican-Democrat lines. The bill now moves to the House.
A similar bill sponsored by Kelly passed the Senate last year but died in the House when lawmakers adjourned.
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