No Room for Medicare Patients

When I went into solo practice of internal medicine in 1981, it was very easy to get a doctor to see a Medicare patient. All I had to do was make a phone call. A courteous receptionist answered. If the doctor couldn’t come to the phone right away, I could count on a prompt callback.

Consultants saw patients quickly, and generally called me to discuss their findings and advice. And very often there would also be a letter in the mail: “Thank you for referring this delightful patient to me.”

How things have changed! Now a doctor gets the phone menu, just as the patients do, and it often ends in voice mail. It might be a few days before a staff member calls back—usually with the news that “we are not accepting any new Medicare patients.” At best, my patient might be offered an appointment in several months.

One very fine gentleman, who had recently moved to a rural area, found it easier to fly to Tucson to see me than to get in to see a local internist. That was in 2009. Recently, he has become unable to travel, so I needed to find him a local doctor.

I tried to expedite matters by ordering him an immediate diagnostic test: an abdominal CT scan. I don’t think anyone could argue that it wasn’t indicated under the circumstances. One little problem: I am not enrolled in Medicare and don’t have the proper government-issued number to enter into the computer. A license to practice medicine is not enough. This National Provider Identifier (NPI) is supposed to protect the system against being defrauded. Without that number, the imaging facility could not get paid by Medicare.

“Why not use the radiologist’s number?” I asked. After all, he was the one who would get paid. Nope, a referral was required. How about a self-referral from the patient? Nope, we can’t allow patients to decide what tests they need. “The patient is willing to pay for his own test,” I said. Nope, if he’s on Medicare, they aren’t allowed to take his money.

They gave the patient 24 hours to find a properly enumerated doctor to countersign my order. Fortunately, he found a specialist willing to do so, and assume potential criminal liability for committing “waste, fraud, and abuse” by ordering a “medically unnecessary” study. (Fortunately for the patient, he turned out not to have cancer, but that could be bad news for the doctor.)

So this is the status of retired Americans. They can’t just walk into a facility and request a medical test, and pay for it with their very own money.

A man may be qualified to pilot a 747 across the Pacific, but once he’s on Medicare, he is unfit to make an unsupervised decision about his own medical care.

I did find my patient a doctor. None of the internists within a 150-mile radius who “take Medicare” are willing to take on a new Medicare patient. But through the website of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (www.aapsonline.org), I found a link to the Medicare carrier’s list of opted out physicians. They don’t “take Medicare,” but many are pleased to see older patients, for a reasonable fee. There was one internist on the list, 150 miles from my patient. She has a courteous and helpful assistant who actually answers the phone, and told me the charge for a new patient visit: $300.
Things could be worse—and already are much worse in Canada. The “soul-destroying search for a family doctor” is described in the Globe and Mail on Aug 21. The Ontario government’s program called Health Care Connect manages to link only 60 percent of patients with a doctor—although you might find a concierge doctor for $3,000 a year.

That’s the cost of medicine when it’s “free”—if you can find it at all. If ObamaCare is implemented, all Americans will be in the same boat. And guess who will get thrown overboard first.

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