Independent physicians are at the beginning of a challenging movement as we fight to stay relevant and solvent during the transition of health care from independence to “regulation without representation.” In 1773, British Parliament passed the Tea Act with the objective to help the struggling British East India Company survive. Opposition to the Act resulted in the return of delivered tea back to Britain. Boston left the ships carrying tea in port and on December 16, 1773, colonists in disguise swarmed aboard three tea-laden ships and dumped their cargo into the harbor. The seeds were planted for the Revolutionary War.
Physicians in private practice are facing a war of our own, and make no mistake: We are battling for our freedom and our livelihoods. Insurance companies and government control of health care have become “regulation without representation.” Lofty guidelines are being imposed, while administrators, insurance executives, and policy consultants are wedged firmly between doctors and patients. Ironically, when it comes to taking responsibility for a life, the physician is standing there all alone. How dare we ask a fee-for-the-service we have rendered? That would be ‘fiscally wasteful’ according to health policy pundits who know nothing of service-oriented occupations. This is my call to action.
Where is all the money going? CEOs of health care insurance companies are making millions. High-level CMS employees undoubtedly have higher incomes than primary care physicians. Where is the outcry from the media and public? The media, with reason, jumped all over Mylan when they started charging $600 for an EpiPen two-pack, but at least it is a tangible product. These high paid middlemen are sucking the life out of patients and physicians without any demonstrable need or benefit. Insurance CEO’s can make over $100 million per year, which amounts to approximately $280,000 a day. How many EpiPens could be purchased with this staggering amount?
The majority of physicians are beholden to third party payers, who decide what our work is worth, like modern day indentured servitude. Instead of having conversations with patients, our time is spent buried in absurd paperwork, endless forms, and questionnaires to accommodate federal requirements instituted by elected officials while industry insiders are controlling the puppet strings. Physician lobbying groups keep telling us to “roll over and play dead” because they are profiting regardless.
While they may not be drinking tea, the business of health care is certainly having a party at the expense of physicians, patients, and taxpayers. It is time the party comes to an end. Physicians are being held accountable for outcomes yet have no influence on how we care for our patients in our own offices. Medicare beneficiaries are forbidden from entering private contracts with their long-term physicians (DPC); the only way out is physicians must say no to Medicare and some private insurances.
Last year, a large insurance company and I did not quite see eye to eye. Family X already had two children for whom I provided medical care. Their newborn was assigned to an adult nephrologist two counties away by mistake (I hope), so it seemed reasonable to provide necessary primary care for their third child. This infant had a respiratory arrest at her two-week appointment. I resuscitated the baby, and paramedics transported the infant to the children’s hospital for PICU care. Imagine my surprise two months later when a “take-back” was initiated on the payment for this patient encounter after initially being compensated. Dr. W in the appeal resolutions department told me to “lose his phone number”; he thought a few hundred dollars was too costly for just saving a human life. Believe it or not, Dr. W was a pediatrician in private practice before “if you can’t beat them, join them” took hold.
Ultimately, I had no choice but to bill the family for provided services (at a considerable discount) as cash pay and they obliged. A threatening letter arrived a few days later from Mr. CEO that balance billing was illegal and there would be serious consequences if I insisted on any monetary payment for my work. This by definition is worse than indentured servitude. Balance billing is charging a patient the difference between what health insurance reimburses and the provider charged. The fact I was not paid by his company nullifies his entire accusation.
I fired off a response humbly suggesting he focus more on placating his stockholders, while leaving the work of saving lives to me. Our practice cut ties with this company, notified patients it was no longer accepted in our practice, and most families changed their insurance plans. You would think my David and Goliath-esque tale ends here; however, our local federally subsidized Community Health Center is the only place accepting this exchange plan (for reasons that should be obvious at this point.) There is no pediatrician available. The tables suddenly turned.
Local insurance representatives inquired why patients were being turned away. Never having signed a contract, I made it abundantly clear they had no control over anything. If I did not receive back pay, there would be no further deliberations. Suddenly, ‘take-backs’ were being halted and back payments were being reversed from over a year before. When a high-level executive called to ask if I would reconsider accepting their patients, it dawned on me that physicians may hold more cards than we realize.
Health policy experts and insurance executives are not physicians, and they require our expertise; they have not foreseen the complications that will arise when supply does not meet demand. Physicians are fed up with data collection requirements, cumbersome electronic record systems, and outcome measures that mean next to nothing. The time has come to throw proverbial tea chests into the Harbor and refuse to comply with the regulations being enforced up on us. “No regulation without representation” should be our battle cry. My practice is terminating another insurance contract this week. If we make smart business decisions, refuse to follow the rules while managing to survive long enough, we can win this war. Patients deserve better. Physicians deserve better.
Acquiescent physicians have already been driven out of independence. Those of us who remain are smart, resilient, capable, and now we must be resolute in our refusal to comply. We know how to provide extraordinary care, which is why our doors are still open. My office is overwhelmed by patients clamoring for a living, breathing physician who listens, makes eye contact, and is not attached to a computer. We must never give up, we must continue to argue, irritate, and aggravate health care bureaucrats at every turn, like those brave individuals who boldly tossed tea into the Boston Harbor many years ago. Defiance will inspire progress. Do not surrender at any cost.
Niran S. Al-Agba is a pediatrician who blogs at MommyDoc.
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