Medical Societies Waive Fees, Weigh Other Options During Pandemic

Marcia Frellick

December 07, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

COVID-19's toll on member facilities pushed the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) recently to take a sizable gamble.

AASM announced in September that it would waive facility fees at all 2648 AASM-accredited sleep facilities for 2021.

At $1,100 for each facility, that will mean lost revenue of $2.9 million, but it's a risk the academy felt it had to take.

Dr Kannan Ramar

AASM President Kannan Ramar, MBBS, MD, told Medscape Medical News that they are betting on the future of the field.

An internal survey of members, he said, found that nearly half (46%) of the 551 respondents thought they might have to close by the end of the year.

In addition, 66% reported a lower patient volume in the past month, and 36% reported that their practice or facility had to apply for loans or other financial assistance because of COVID-19, AASM said in its press release.

"We are hoping that if we help our members through this, they will be there for our patients," Ramar said.

Other medical societies also are weighing options, straddling the line between needing income to provide resources for members but being acutely aware of the financial toll the pandemic is taking, according to a sampling by Medscape Medical News.

As previously reported, primary care practices are projected to lose more than $68,000 in revenue per full-time physician in 2020, after steep drops in office visits and the collection of fees from March to May, according to a study led by researchers in the Blavatnik Institute at Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts.

Those losses were calculated without considering a potential second wave of COVID-19 this year, the authors note.

"We Can Survive This"

Although AASM waived fees for its member facilities, individual physician fees have not been reduced so far. But the group is looking for more ways to help lower the economic burden on members, Ramar said.

"I don't think we've ever been in this situation in the 45 years of the academy. This is a once-in-a-lifetime event for challenges we're going through," he said. "The board and the leadership realized that if we're going to do something, this is the time to do it."

In addition to waiving the fees, AASM and the AASM Foundation are offering relief funding to state and regional sleep societies and research award recipients through programs created in response to COVID-19.

Some societies said they are not making changes to their dues or fees, some are forgoing cost-of-living fee increases, and some are waiving registration fees for annual meetings.

Dr Michael Blaiss

The American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI) waived most members' registration fees for its annual meeting in November. Typically, that fee would be $500 to $800 per member, plus charges for some premium sessions, Michael Blaiss, MD, ACAAI executive medical director, said.

Blaiss told Medscape Medical News that the College thought offering its 6000 members essentially 25 free hours of CME would benefit them more than waiving annual membership dues, which are about $425 for physicians in the United States.

If the pandemic stretches through 2021, Blaiss said, "We can survive this. I'm not worried about that at all."

But he acknowledged the painful effect on medical societies.

"I don't think any organization would tell you it's not having an effect on their income," he said. "I know it is for us and for virtually any medical organization. A high percentage of income comes from the annual meeting."

Waiving dues has not been a high priority among members in communications so far, Blaiss said.

Dr Bruce H. Thiers

American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) President Bruce H. Thiers, MD, told Medscape Medical News that there will be no cost-of-living increase for 2021 dues, and AAD members can request a reduction in dues, which will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

"We understand that many members will have to make tough financial decisions," he said.

In addition, AAD, which has more than 20,000 members, is exploring payment options to help members spread out the cost of membership.

ACP Extends Membership

The American College of Physicians (ACP), whose membership cycle starts in July, did not reduce dues but extended membership at no cost for 3 months through September to its 163,000 members, Phil Masters, MD, ACP's vice president of membership, told Medscape Medical News.

It also expanded its educational offerings related to the pandemic, including webinars on physician wellness and issues regarding telemedicine.

Dr Phil Masters

He said expanding educational resources rather than waiving dues was an intentional decision after much discussion because "we're primarily a services resource organization."

Membership data are still being calculated, but early indications are that membership is not increasing this year, after seeing annual growth of about 2% to 2.5%, Masters said. He noted that income is down "by several percent." Annual membership dues average about $500 for physicians who have been practicing for 10 years.

"We're well positioned to tolerate the ups and downs," he said, but he acknowledged that "there's no question the financial impact has been devastating on some practices."

Like some other associations, ACP decided to cancel this year's annual meeting, which had been planned for April. The 2021 annual meeting will be conducted online from April 29 to May 1.

Smaller organizations that rely heavily on income from the annual meeting will be severely challenged the longer the pandemic continues, Masters said.

The decision is not as simple as whether to reduce or eliminate dues, he noted. Organizations will have to reexamine their missions and structure their fees and offerings according to the needs of members.

"It's a balance in doing things for the community at large and balancing the need to be sensitive to financial implications," Masters said.

Marcia Frellick is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. She has previously written for the Chicago Tribune and and was an editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, the Cincinnati Enquirer, and the St. Cloud (Minnesota) Times. Follow her on Twitter at @mfrellick.

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