Doctors see little of the money patients pay towards health insurance

I was recently struck by two conversations that I had with acquaintances about recent experiences that they had had with their primary care physicians.  The first occurred at my local pool. A fellow swimmer asked me if I took new Medicare patients.  She bemoaned that she was abandoned — her beloved physician of over 20 years had sent out a letter announcing that she would no longer accept Medicare patients. My friend had recently gone on Medicare.  She speculated about her physician’s  motives, but felt personally rejected, or “fired.”   After she explained her situation, I affirmed, “I do take new Medicare patients,” but qualified my response with a description of my concierge model primary care practice, which requires an annual retainer fee from members in exchange for improved access to me and other amenities, including my guaranteed smaller patient panel size.

I started a retainer fee primary care practice after having been in a traditional fee for service practice for 12 years and then after taking a year’s leave of absence from clinical medicine. Many of my old patients sought me out, though currently most patients enrolling in my practice are new patients looking for a better primary care experience.  My swimming friend nodded that she understood and that her mother had a concierge physician–she was familiar with the concept and could see its value, though was going to have to decided whether she could afford it.

My second conversation was at a friend’s 59th birthday party the following evening. The party was held at the upscale home of a middle-aged, gay male couple—friends of my friend. As I chatted with one of the hosts, a self-employed professional, he asked what kind of medicine I practiced. I explained that I was an internist, or a primary care physician for adults, and that I was in solo practice in Atlanta after practicing at the Emory Clinic for 12 years.  As I spoke he announced that he was in need of a new primary care physician. He went on to explain that his physician, who he was very fond of, had converted his practice last year to a concierge model practice—requiring patients to pay a membership fee in order to remain in his care.  He had made the decision not to enroll in the new practice model, in part because he was already paying a high deductible for care under his insurance and he was unsure how the annual fee would impact his out of pocket cost.

Before the host of the party said more (not wanting him to feel awkward with me), I explained that my practice was a similar model. He and I spoke for about twenty minutes about the problems in primary care and the reasons that primary care doctors were seeking out new practice models.  The man with whom I chatted pulled over his partner, who had been cared for by the same physician.  His partner reacted to our discussion—“but this is not a solution for our country’s health care problems.” I agreed, and we talked about cost and discussed new models of health care, including the Medical Home and Accountable Care Organizations, both of which have yet to materialize as answers for doctors like me.  He went on to assert that he felt that one solution to the problems in medicine would be to produce more doctors, while at the same time to lower the cost of educating them.  Personally, I doubt that producing more doctors in general, will improve primary care, nor will it reduce cost; though, better incentivizing primary care career choices would be helpful.

These conversations illustrate that for the American populous the main problems in health care today are access and affordability.   For primary care physicians the problem is not so simple.  The “system” has failed to support our work in a manner that is conducive to providing the care that we feel patients deserve. Patients may or may not be aware of the impact of this failure on our practice of medicine.

Most Americans equate spending money on health insurance with spending money on their physicians. Primary care physicians see relatively little of the money that consumers put toward their health insurance premiums. Our fees and reimbursement rates are relatively low in comparison to the exorbitant fees for tests, procedures, ER visits, and hospitals stays. As our overhead expense has increased, in part because of the administrative hassle involved in getting money from health insurance companies, we have responded by increasing the number of patients seen per day and our panel sizes to the point where many (including myself) feel that quality of care and the patient-physician relationship is compromised.

“Concierge medicine” and the abandonment of Medicaid, and now Medicare, by primary care practices are a reaction to these pressures, which have changed the nature of general practice and offer solutions to protect the personal aspects of the physician-patient relationship.  However, clearly these motives remain poorly understood by the average American consumer, who is faced with rising out of pocket medical costs to pay for health insurance, and increasingly feels burdened with excessive health care expense.

The disconnect leaves doctors like me in a conundrum. Do we continue to work within the confines of a system that has failed to protect primary care as an honored specialty? Do we compromise the care that we deliver in order to preserve access?  Or, do we jump ship and force change by creating new models of care—models of care that patients are increasingly seeking out as they recognize their value? It can be a difficult position to be in.

Juliet K. Mavromatis is an internal medicine physician who blogs at Dr Dialogue.

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