The nation’s medical establishment has grown increasingly anxious about an antitrust suit contending that residents are forced to participate in a system that ensures they work long hours and receive low pay.
Medical schools and teaching hospitals, the principal defendants, are so worried that in recent weeks they have asked their allies in the Senate to enact legislation that would derail the suit, inoculating them from damages that might otherwise run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
The defendants maintain that the suit, filed by several young doctors, has no merit, and express confidence that they would prevail in court. But they are clearly troubled by the possibility the suit could upend the decades-old system of medical residents’ selection and deployment around the country.
The defendants have also hired lobbyists with previous connections to two senators who have been most directly involved in the effort to introduce such legislation: Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, both Democrats.
At issue is the National Resident Matching Program, known in medical circles as the Match. Every March, a computer determines where new graduates of medical schools will spend the next several years as residents, gaining experience and honing their skills.
More than 80 percent of first-year residency positions are offered exclusively through the program, which is based on rankings submitted both by hospitals, which list the graduates they want, and the 15,000 or so graduates, who list the hospitals they prefer. Both sides agree in advance to accept the pairing.
The suit contends that the Match keeps salaries artificially low and crushes any competition that might force teaching hospitals to offer better conditions like shorter working hours. The industry’s defense of that system has long been that a residency is not a job per se but instead a continuation of medical education in which the resident ought to be entirely immersed.
Though no legislation has yet been introduced, one version the defendants are seeking would exempt the Match from private antitrust suits, effectively ending the case.
Dr. Jordan J. Cohen, president of the Association of American Medical Colleges, which helps run the Match, said the effort to get Congressional help was important.
“It’s precisely because the suit has no merit that we are going this route.” Otherwise, Dr Cohen said, the case may not be resolved for two or three years, and “the resources that are going into the defense of this lawsuit are enormous.”