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Doctors Are Coming, Loads of Them, But Should Public Dollars Defray Conference Costs?

| January 18, 2011

Say Aaaah for dollars.

It hardly gets more fascinating than this: “Community Acquired Pneumonia” or “Hypertension 2011: What the Latest Clinical Trials Mean to My Practice,” plus the obligatory sessions on urinary incontinence, “diabetic nephropathy” (think liver disease), and the always hyper-popular sessions on prostate fitness and that boomer special: drug therapy for the elderly.

Actually, excitement isn’t the point, at least not in the context of those three-hour morning sessions. The point, for physicians, is to rack up enough continuing education credits every year to keep up to date with medical trends, and consequently stay in business. Thousands of doctors do it. Have to do it.

And the point, for Flagler County, is that two of those week-long doctor-massing conferences now take place here every year, at the Hammock Beach Resort, bringing in some 300 physicians and speakers and their family members—not to mention the occasional mistress—for a total of 1,250 extra visitors. The conference has been held at the resort since 2008, bringing more and more physicians every year (100 in 2008, 130 the following year, 360 last year).

And the point, for the Tourist Development Council, is that visitors of that financial caliber are exactly the sort of visitors it’s looking for: wealthy, relatively free-spending, staying here for a full week. That’s why tomorrow (Jan. 19) the council is likely to approve a request for a $10,000 subsidy by the non-profit company that organizes the annual conference, the West Hampstead, N.Y.-based Continuing Education Company. The council approved a $10,000 grant for last year’s conference. The company would use that money to advertise the conference through Google advertising.

The conference will take place from April 4 to April 8 and again from April 19 to April 22. The two-week increments this year are designed to better capitalize on spring break schedules: the more physicians are able to travel with their children, the likelier they are to travel to the resort. The Palm Coast location was chosen over more southern locations, and stuck with, because conference organizers discovered that many more physicians were willing to travel here than they were to go to South Florida. Most of those physicians come from the South, particularly from North Carolina, and many drive. Palm Coast has none of the congestion, none of the sprawl and none of the distant feel of South Florida.

“Our market research showed that Flagler County and Palm Coast’s Northeast Florida location made it ideal for those who preferred to drive from different areas in the Southern US,” the company wrote in its grant request to the tourist council. “Many of the Midwestern attendees who drove preferred to drive to Palm Coast over South Florida locations.”

Last year, visitors came from 34 states, Canada, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. States sending 20 visitors or more included Illinois, Georgia, Minnesota, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio and North Carolina. Almost all traveled with company. In all, the conference brought 1,344 visitors, according to its own numbers. (Curiously, Florida had just 19 physicians at the conference, and just two from Flagler County.) Walter Ejnes, the company’s president, told the tourist council last year that he loves the area so much he hopes to move here some day.

The popularity of this type of conference with the physician set is relatively obvious: the hard work takes place over just three hours every morning—three hour-long sessions on any one of those medically incomprehensible (to the layman, anyway) subjects. After that, it’s playtime.

Why should public dollars underwrite the conference in any way? Organizers give this explanation: while physicians and other participants pick up the majority of the expenses, the company has lost grant funding from pharmaceutical companies that used to underwrite its sessions “due to industry standards which do not favor support of events held at resort locations,” according to the company’s application. “In addition, as a non-profit medical education company, we feel that pharmaceutical support leads to the perception of bias in the educational content. A growing number of physicians will only attend a conference if it is free of pharmaceutical support. In addition, speakers from academic institutions and teaching hospitals are beginning to restrict their lectures to conferences free of commercial support.”

Previously, the company claims it received from $30,000 to $50,000 from pharmaceuticals. It’s now trying to make up some of that loss with public dollars.

While the reasoning behind the company’s request is logical—if not commendable—the company’s budget does raise questions.

Physicians will be charged $610 tuition. The company expects that some of those in attendance won’t be actual physicians, but health care professionals. Their tuition fee is $510. The company is assuming that it’ll have 265 physicians and 35 other professionals, for a total of $179,500 in tuition.

The company’s budget for the conference is listed at $199,000. That includes $48,000 for breakfast costs, which the company is providing attendees at a cost of $30 per day per physician or attendee.

More than a quarter of the budget–$60,000—is devoted to speakers’ fees. Speakers, according to the application, get $1,500 per one-hour lecture. The application lists 40 such slots. (An earlier version of this story had incorrectly listed just 30 lecture slots and raised a question about the resulting financial difference. In fact, Walter Ejnes said, each week-long program offers 20 lectures, some of them more than an hour long, with some speakers commanding higher fees than others. The resulting average is $1,500 per speaker, and a total of $60,000.)

The $60,000 is separate from $8,000 for air travel for speakers. The company lists 16 such speakers (presumably, some will drive). The budget also includes a $7,000 item for lodging for 20 people—speakers and staff.

Last year the TDC approved the grant request on a 5-1 vote, with member Mary DiStefano dissenting because she had doubts about the way the budget was put together from a zero base, anticipating registration and grants. She called the method “chancy,” and wondered how the organization stayed in business. (The TDC’s budget of more than $1 million a year is funded by the 4 percent bed tax assessed on all hotel and , motel bookings and RV and short-term rentals in the county.)

Milissa Holland, who chairs the tourist council, defends the grant request, citing added benefits that come with the high volume of visitors staying over many nights. “When this came to us last year there was a lot of dialogue that took place at the TDC council,” Holland said Tuesday. “It was the first time we’d ever funded an entity that was outside the county, let alone outside the state. But I think the ultimate decision came down to the fact that the benefit of not only having this type of conference held here on an annual basis but the physicians that come to the conference also bring their families as well, or the majority have last year. That’s sort of an offshoot of what we’re trying to promote in our community.”

The grant could, Holland said, “be discussed as an incentive,” especially if it works to keep these conferences here and attract others. “But there really is accountability attached to it, so we’re not just giving this money away without verifying all the expenditure paid throughout the conference.”

“I’m an absolute believer that the grant made the difference in that attendance,” Ejnes said of the considerable increase in the conference’s popularity–thanks to its marketing. “It is generating more money than what we are getting back from the grant,” he added, given the bed taxes visitors pay.

Some participants will stay at hotels in Palm Coast, but most will be paying from $240 to $400 per night to stay at the resort, and up to $40 per lunch and $70 per dinner per person for banquet dining.

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9 Responses for “Doctors Are Coming, Loads of Them, But Should Public Dollars Defray Conference Costs?”

  1. Charles Ericksen Jr says:

    WOW..If I was a female physician, I would be upset, that you did not recognize the “boy toys” they could bring to the “training sessions”, especially, after you indicated that “a few would bring their mistress” (I’m assuming you mean the male physicians).. But, now back to the more serious….. Generally, when a lengthy conference like this is planned there are sessions on office operations, where they are shown new ways to “more properly bill the Insurance companies, to maximize profits” ..Just when Insurance Companies think they have written the plan documents to reflect the intent of the employer, the physicians financial advisers come up with inventive manners, to cgarge more. This is a continous back and forth, and it does drive the costs of care up.and up..I understand, that the recipient has to match the advertising amount to receive the full $10,000..

  2. Charles Ericksen Jr says:

    I just saw the comment made by our City Council representative, and wonder why she did not make the same suggestion of “zero based” budgetting to her own City Manager..Their process is normally , take last years and add on a percentage..and then move monies around from one budget category to another..

  3. emile says:

    I’d pay the fee and thank them for coming back to Flagler County again. We can’t afford to nitpick how they run their budget, when we have houses to sell and a local economy to keep afloat. Some of the Resort income is bound to spill over to the rest of the County, and we do collect bed and restaurant taxes from this event, too, don’t we?

    I hope the weather is beautiful, and all the visitors decide to build or buy vacation homes here. :)

  4. lawabidingcitizen says:

    The answer is a resounding NO — public money aka taxpayer funds shouldn’t be used to defray private costs.

  5. rickg says:

    How much money is spent on promoting Flagler County to those outside the state? Whatever it is or isn’t $10,000 is a good investment compared to what these people will spend. At times you must spend money to make it and this is a good example of government trying to help local businesses.

  6. Nancy N. says:

    As someone who speaks at conferences, I can tell you why there is an apparent discrepancy in the speaker’s budget over what the advertised fee for speakers is. It is because some speakers who are hired for conferences like this are highly in demand and can negotiate fees that are higher than the standard rate offered by the conference to its general body of speakers.

  7. Charles Ericksen Jr says:

    Let’s remember, the $10,000 grant is from the bed tax, that visitors pay when they occupy a local, Flagler County Hotel bed. No money comes from our Ad Valorum taxes. With this being a 2 week, conference, and 300 people staying most of the time, much more than the $10,000 grant ot upfront $$ will go back in., for the next request..

  8. Palm Coaster says:

    Totally agree with Charles. I also believe that $10,000 TDC grant is plenty enough to help the NY based Continuing Education Company for advertising their event. Sure they make substantial profits out of these venues and always gear their events to be hosted in the areas were they can get more freebies and less expensive rates.
    They do not choose Flagler county as being sold to us, because is less crowded and with more attractions than in South Florida. They choose Flagler because they get a better deal for their money from the the Ginn Resort as well as from the County. Lets don’t be gullible. Past August in South Florida a night at the Westin Diplomat in Hollywood Fl, was about $250…mid week and the place was booked. Needles to say a $8.50 plus minimum for a drink and ready to fork about $100 plus dinner for two..

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