April 5, 2005 -- The good news reached the Jamestown, N.Y., office of Dr. Rudolph Mueller in a fax from a congressman in Washington. Mueller had been named 2004 Physician of the Year.
"My secretary came running in and said, 'Dr. Rudy, look at what you've won, you're Physician of the Year,' " said Mueller, an internist.
But to receive the award in person at a special two-day workshop in Washington last month, Mueller found out that he would have to make a $1,250 contribution to the National Republican Congressional Committee. It was a disturbing discovery, he said.
"To actually buy your award and it's not from your peers or from your patients or from the community that you serve, it's really deceptive," said Mueller, author of "As Sick As It Gets: The Shocking Reality of America's Healthcare, A Diagnosis and Treatment Plan." "It's not being honest, it's just not right."
To see what the award process was all about, Mueller sent in his $1,250 contribution and ABC News paid for his travel to Washington for the scheduled events March 14-15, which included a tax-reform workshop as well as appearances by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and President Bush.
Mueller soon found he was not the only winner. There were hundreds of Physicians of the Year present, many of whom found the criteria for being selected equally as opaque.
"You know, nobody knows, so don't feel bad about it," Mueller said one attendee told him. "I think that more than likely it's to get us Republicans together under the pretense that maybe you will work a little harder to keep Republicans in office."
Another winner was more blunt. "I don't think it's worth it from the standpoint of your own qualifications, but I think it's worth it to support the party," he said. "Basically it's one big monstrous donation to the party."
"It's like the old diploma mills," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a government watchdog group. "It's the kind of scam that we've seen congressional investigations look at when they take place in the private sector. But here, since members of Congress are doing it, we're not going to see any investigation."
Investing in the Party
The Republicans, under the direction of DeLay, came up with the idea for the awards five years ago as a means of helping to raise funds for the congressional campaign efforts for their party.
In fact, signs reading "A Celebration of the House Republican Majority" and "Moving America's Agenda" decorated the hotel ballroom where last month's events were held.
A Republican congressional spokesman said DeLay stopped direct involvement in the program two years ago, but the majority leader was the guest speaker this year at the awards ceremony luncheon, giving a speech that included proposals well-tailored to the doctors' interests.
"We need to reform our legal system so that predatory personal injury lawyers can't clog our courts and drive doctors out of business with abusive lawsuits," he said. "Today in America, a doctor in a small town is trying to determine how he can continue his practice after learning of his new higher malpractice premiums."
Mueller said most of the talk at the sessions was about marketing, lawyers and taxes, and that he was met with silence when trying to raise the issue of the lack of affordable health insurance.
"This is the real crisis," Mueller said he told the congressmen on one panel at the events. "Please, I am begging you."
The congressmen said nothing and quickly called for a question from another Physician of the Year, Mueller said .
Later that day, Bush spoke at the NRCC dinner, thanking the attendees for their "investment" in the party. "You're making a wise investment about the future of this country, an investment made upon principle, an investment made upon freedom, an investment that will help us stay a prosperous nation, and an investment that will allow each and every American to rise to his or her own God-given talents," he said.
And some of the other winners told Mueller that his $1,250 fee to the NRCC was a wise investment indeed. He should use the award as a marketing tool, they said, as an impressive honor he could tell patients. And on the Internet, ABC News found physicians across the country doing just that -- listing NRCC's Physician of the Year among their honors and credentials.
Wertheimer warned that the award was misleading and that they should add the award was given "because I paid for this certificate, not for anything else that happened."
A Republican spokesman said there were thousands of doctors around the country content with their Physicians of the Year awards, and that there was nothing about the program to apologize for.
ABC News' Rhonda Schwartz, Simon Surowicz and Jessica Wang contributed to this story.