No Room for Medicare Patients

| Monday, September 26, 2011 | |
by Jane M. Orient, M.D.

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.



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