How a psychiatrist can write 100,000 prescriptions a year, and what that means for primary care

The Miami Herald is reporting an investigation of a psychiatrist who wrote almost 100,000 prescriptions a year. Sen. Grassley and the feds have halted payment to this Miami psychiatrist who stated that “he prescribes only what is medically necessary” and “works long hours, seeing patients for 10 minutes at a time and many of his patients need four or five medications.”

I have no personal knowledge, interaction, acquaintance with psychiatrist Dr. Mendez-Villamil. However, though this sounds fraudulent, how could this doctor personally benefit from all of these scripts? Doctors do not get paid by how many prescriptions they write. Drug companies are now forbidden to wine and dine doctors, so it is highly unlikely that some pharmaceutical rep is incentivizing this psychiatrist. Besides, these patients are Medicare and Medicaid, so they are likely getting generics in the first place.

So if there is no wrong doing or even an incentive to write all those scripts, is this even possible and why does it happen? If the good doctor is seeing patients every 10 minutes, and each patient needs 4-5 prescriptions (assuming an 8 hour day), that’s 46 patients a day needing about 3 prescriptions on average to yield the 150 prescriptions a day that Dr. Mendez Villamil is “accused” of writing.

Though this may not be good medicine, with that volume of patients, the numbers sound pretty reasonable, especially since many chronic psychiatric patients are on multiple medicines. So is it possible that one psychiatrist sees almost 50 Medicare and Medicaid patients a day in 10 minute visits? If the psychiatrist accepts Medicare and Medicaid, then this is actually quite likely the case.

In a piece I wrote for a year an a half ago, entitled, As psychiatry goes, so will primary care, I described how there are two kinds of mental health care in the US: care for those who pay with insurance and care for those who pay out of pocket. The kind of care that you see in TV and movies where a patient talks to a psychiatrist and possible gets medication; that kind of care happens, but only if you are willing to pay out of pocket.

In many cases, fees for a regular sessions run over $200. For those paying with insurance, the experience is quite different. If a patient sees a psychiatrist, it is usually only for medication management and usually only in short, 10 minute visits. Any “talk therapy” is relegated to a psychologist or psychiatric social worker.

I mean no disrespect to some of the excellent and well qualified non-physician therapist we have in the US. I am not even stating that having a short visit with a psychiatrist for medication management and counseling done by non-MD’s is bad medicine. However, the public must be aware that this is how psychiatry is practiced in the US.

In the case of Dr. Mendez-Villamil, he probably is one of only a handful of psychiatrists in Miami that accepts Medicare and Medicaid. Patients probably wait months to see him. The Miami Herald makes him look like a criminal. However, think about the majority of his colleagues who only see patients who can pay $200 or more out of pocket per visit. Dr. Mendez-Villamil is probably a hero, and if he writes 100,000 prescriptions per year this should be seen not as a crime, but a sign of a broken system.

The reason why so many psychiatrists stopped taking insurance, and the reason why those psychiatrist who accept insurance cram patients into 10 minute visits, is because the reimbursement rate from insurers is ridiculously low. Many psychiatrists realized that accepting insurance just didn’t make sense.

The same thing is happening right now in primary care. More primary care physicians have stopped taking new Medicare or Medicaid patients, or any insurance altogether. Some have even gone beyond cash only, and started “concierge” practices which charge patients a retainer fee in exchange for easy access to their primary care doctor.

Health care reform has focused on how to cover the uninsured and how to pay for this, but it has not focused on how to change the current reimbursement system that rewards “proceduralists” and punishes “congnitivists.” If health legislation that covers the uninsured does eventually pass without addressing this fundamental crack in our health care system, there will likely be no primary care physicians to see all these newly insured patients.

The few primary care physicians that do accept the newly insured will likely have limited access and see more patients in less time – like the good Dr. Mendez-Villamil. Whereas the typical psychiatric patient might be on 3-4 medications, the typical Medicaid and Medicare patient is on a great deal more medications.

Primary care physicians, get your pens ready. 100,000 prescriptions a year will seem like nothing.

Matthew Mintz is an internal medicine physician and blogs at Dr. Mintz’ Blog.

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