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Doctors Soften Their Stance on Obama’s Health Overhaul

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AUGUSTA, Me. — With Republicans in complete control of Maine's state government for the first time since 1962, State Senator Lois A. Snowe-Mello offered a bill in February to limit doctors' liability that she was sure the powerful doctors' lobby would cheer. Instead, it asked her to shelve the measure.

"It was like a slap in the face," said Ms. Snowe-Mello, who describes herself as a conservative Republican. "The doctors in this state are increasingly going left."

Doctors were once overwhelmingly male and usually owned their own practices. They generally favored lower taxes and regularly fought lawyers to restrict patient lawsuits. Ronald Reagan came to national political prominence in part by railing against "socialized medicine" on doctors' behalf.

But doctors are changing. They are abandoning their own practices and taking salaried jobs in hospitals, particularly in the North, but increasingly in the South as well. Half of all younger doctors are women, and that share is likely to grow.

There are no national surveys that track doctors' political leanings, but as more doctors move from business owner to shift worker, their historic alliance with the Republican Party is weakening from Maine as well as South Dakota, Arizona and Oregon, according to doctors' advocates in those and other states.

That change could have a profound effect on the nation's health care debate. Indeed, after opposing almost every major health overhaul proposal for nearly a century, the American Medical Association supported President Obama's legislation last year because the new law would provide health insurance to the vast majority of the nation's uninsured, improve competition and choice in insurance, and promote prevention and wellness, the group said.

Because so many doctors are no longer in business for themselves, many of the issues that were once priorities for doctors' groups, like insurance reimbursement, have been displaced by public health and safety concerns, including mandatory seat belt use and chemicals in baby products.

Even the issue of liability, while still important to the A.M.A. and many of its state affiliates, is losing some of its unifying power because malpractice insurance is generally provided when doctors join hospital staffs.

"It was a comfortable fit 30 years ago representing physicians and being an active Republican," said Gordon H. Smith, executive vice president of the Maine Medical Association. "The fit is considerably less comfortable today."

Mr. Smith, 59, should know. The child of a prominent Republican family, he canvassed for Barry Goldwater in 1964, led the state's Youth for Nixon and College Republicans chapters, served on the Republican National Committee and proudly called himself a Reagan Republican — one reason he got the job in 1979 representing the state's doctors' group.

But doctors in Maine have abandoned the ownership of practices en masse, and their politics and points of view have shifted dramatically. The Maine doctors' group once opposed health insurance mandates because they increase costs to employers, but it now supports them, despite Republican opposition, because they help patients.

Three years ago, Mr. Smith found himself leading an effort to preserve a beverage tax — a position anathema to his old allies at the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the Republican Party but supported by doctors because it paid for a health program. The doctors lost by a wide margin, and the tax was overturned.

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http://www.nytimes.c...agewanted=print

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