AMA divided as ties cut with WA branch

5 minute read

WA doctors woke this morning to find they were no longer members of the national body, after a dispute over payments.

Some 5000 doctors were kicked out of the Australian Medical Association national body last night, after a spat between the federal AMA and its WA branch culminated in a split.

Without warning the AMA WA first, the national AMA sent out a notice to its members in WA informing them that they were no longer members of the federal arm of the association.

The members immediately lost free access to the fees list, the Medical Journal of Australia, careers services and anything else related to the federal AMA.

AMA WA are warning that this is just the beginning of the fallout, which could potentially spread to other jurisdictions.

The move follows years of tension between the federal and state branches AMA Victoria took a stand a few years ago by introducing an “associate member” category that paid for state representation only.

AMA WA, meanwhile, claims it has historically contributed around 18% of the total funds needed by the AMA federal despite accounting for just 10% of membership, something it can no longer afford to do.

At some point in late 2022, the AMA WA allegedly stopped forwarding its full dues to federal AMA – dues which the federal AMA sets unilaterally for each state, based on a raft of considerations and not just member numbers.  

Negotiations between the state and federal body have been ongoing for about a year.

The first outward sign that discussions were going poorly came in December, when the WA branch sent a message to members warning them that “renewing their AMA (WA) memberships … may not confer membership of Federal AMA from 1 January 2024”.

Despite the message naming January as the cutoff date, both parties had agreed to 29 February 2024 as the deadline.

During this time, AMA national continued to recognise its WA members via an interim agreement.

As the February deadline approached, AMA WA president Dr Michael Page told The Medical Republic that the state branch’s intention was to continue negotiations.

“We’ve been taken aback by the approach that the federal AMA has decided to take, which is to cut off WA unilaterally and to terminate what were ongoing good faith negotiations between AMA WA and federal AMA,” he said.

“We were of the impression that we were in a situation of offer and counter-offer open dialogue.

“We actually thought the tone of our negotiations and our communications with one another had improved in recent months.”

Federal AMA president Professor Steve Robson had a different report of the situation.

“At the end of that interim agreement we were a long way away [from an agreement],” he told TMR.

“We’ve been involved in negotiations for at least a year, and so the federal board just felt that we’d really exhausted the options.

“It is incredibly sad, and we hoped we’d be able to work something out. But in the end, we couldn’t.”

Both Dr Page and Professor Robson separately stressed the importance of a united AMA and suggested that they would like to come to an agreement.

An email to WA members sent by the federal AMA on Thursday night alleged that the AMA WA had failed to remit any fees to the federal body since December 2023.

Dr Page rejected this and said under the interim agreement the state branch had continued paying the federal body as part of a good-faith agreement to keep negotiations live.

“It was a substantial amount of money, more than some states would pay in total,” Dr Page.

The federal AMA, in its email to WA members, said the situation was “a result of the financial situation that has been developing in WA over the past few years”.

It then linked back to the AMA WA’s annual reports, which reflect a rough few years for the branch, with a loss of $2.3m in 2021 and a loss of $5 million in 2022.

These were largely related to a fall in demand for training services and changing government advice on rapid antigen tests, of which AMA WA’s medical products business had bought about $1.7m worth.

The 2023 report has not been posted yet.

Regardless of the WA branch’s individual financial standing, Dr Page was confident that it wasn’t the only jurisdiction that had a problem with the way AMA federal ran things.

“AMA WA is not some outlier,” he said.

“We have the misfortune of being the first to be carved out of the federation, but … there are at least three other states representing well over half of the total membership of the AMA that want reform, and they want it soon.”

The states in question are Victoria, Queensland and South Australia, which AMA WA said had allied with it to lobby for a change to the way funding flowed between the organisations.

Professor Robson told TMR that the AMA would be starting a process to restructure the federation agreement with the state associations from next week.

This was scheduled prior to the fallout with AMA WA.

Meanwhile, AMA Queensland president Dr Maria Boulton told TMR that it did not support the federal AMA decision to cease negotiations with AMA WA.

“AMA Queensland is committed to working towards a sustainable and stronger future for the AMA Federation which includes all states, territories and federal AMA,” she said.

“We believe reform is necessary to ensure the ongoing viability and effectiveness of the Federation in representing the interests of all members.

“We do not support any separation from the AMA Federation.”

Over in SA, AMA branch president Dr John Williams told members he was “coming to terms” with the implications of the AMA WA situation and reiterated his commitment to working collaboratively with both organisations.

AMA Victoria declined to comment.

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