Obamacare: Prognosis Terminal

Health Insurance Exchange Fails its Physical

Politics and science work together about as well as politics and religion.
What about politics and education… energy… economics… ?
Come to think of it, politics doesn’t get along with anyone.
So it’s no surprise that problems arose when politicians got involved in healthcare.IMG_3979

This blog is not about politics. You’ve had enough of that.
I’m writing about access to primary care.

I’m a family doctor explaining why I won’t be a part of Obamacare.
And it’s not because of politics.
In fact, most primary care physicians are opting out.
Because we simply can’t afford to participate. I’ll explain why.

IMG_4122Primary care costs less than your cell phone. And more Americans have a cell phone than have a family doctor.  Obama gave away phones during his campaign.
Now, some politicians want to give away family doctors.
But we don’t take too kindly to being given away.

Here’s the thing. While educated and powerful people debate the failure of a website, the nuances of a law, and the moral obligation of a country to provide healthcare, most of them have overlooked the obvious. We are just flat out of primary care physicians.
Kaput. Empty. No room at the Inn.

Let me spell it out for you.

1) There aren’t enough primary care physicians to care for Americans.
Obamacare doesn’t help that. There is nothing in the Affordable Care Act to enhance primary care. Nothing to motivate more physicians to choose a career in primary care. No incentive to keep established PCPs in practice. Nothing to expand our offices or reward the wonderful people that work in them. No increased pay, no less paperwork, no fewer regulations. In fact, the opposite is true. We have more laws and taxes, confusing rules, and increased overhead.

2) Policies being sold by the Insurance Exchanges have very high deductibles.IMG_4111
Most Americans with insurance know that a deductible means that they will have to pay for the first $5000 of their healthcare. But the patients who can’t afford insurance, even if their plan is subsidized by the ACA, still can’t afford to pay their deductible. The ACA was to help those 30 million people who couldn’t afford insurance. But even if the insurance premium is tax subsidized, how will these patients be able to afford their deductible? By the way, that deductible happens in the PCP office. So who doesn’t get paid? The primary care physician.

3) Most hospitals are not even in the Insurance Exchange networks.
Once a deductible has been met, which is usually within the first few hours of a hospitalization, the hospital can anticipate getting paid. Even knowing that, most hospitals have opted out of over 2/3’s of the Exchange’s insurance plans. There are few things harder for a primary care physician than trying to find a hospital bed for a seriously ill “out of network” patient. It would be better for the patient to have gone directly to the hospital ER instead of to their PCP’s office. If a patient is already in the ER, the rules requiring a hospital to keep a sick patient could help. But doesn’t going to the ER first raise cost?

4) The preventive care coverage is very limited as to which services are covered.
All non-covered services will go to the deductible. Meaning the patients who couldn’t afford insurance must still pay for their illness care. Patients are confused by this and get angry at the PCP because they expected a “free physical”. When told that “your physical is covered”, patients bring long laundry lists of their medical problems that have been neglected. These need significant attention. Disease care is not covered as part of a screening preventive exam. The lab tests, and the physician’s time to evaluate these problems, are not “preventive care”. There is no provision for PCPs to be paid for this care. It goes to a deductible and primary care doesn’t get paid.

IMG_37485) If a patient doesn’t pay their insurance premium, the PCP must refund the insurance company. The Insurance Exchange policies have a 90 day grace period. A patient can sign up for insurance, see a physician between days 30 and 90, then chose not to pay their insurance premium. The PCP that cared for that patient will be notified by the insurance plan that the patient didn’t pay for the insurance, the policy is cancelled, and the PCP must refund to the insurance company all fees paid. If the PCP doesn’t refund the insurance company, the funds will be subtracted from the next payment. The insurance company is protected. The PCP bears the risk and takes the loss.

6) The earliest enrollees will be the sickest.
The young, healthy people that were “forced” to buy insurance are not signing up. The healthy seem to prefer paying the $95/year penalty instead of paying hundreds of dollars each month for a high deductible plan. Without the healthy enrollees, the price will soon go up. Meanwhile, overworked PCPs that participate in the Exchange plans will be assuming care for those patients who were sick enough to fight through the enrollment process. These are the patients that need the most care, or have neglected the most serious medical conditions. These patients have put off their care because they couldn’t pay for it. When the PCP delivers comprehensive care and expensive tests, those charges will go to the deductible. You see the pattern here. The PCP bears the cost once again.

7) Your PCP is already providing charity care every day.IMG_3828
Primary care physicians quietly provide free care in their offices every single day. We can’t advertise our charity because we would be overwhelmed. Everyone has a friend or a family member that needs free care. And unlike non-profit hospitals, no one subsidizes our charity. We can’t afford to market our giving, and we’re not very good at saying “no”. So like the thousand points of light that make our country brighter, we quietly tell a patient “no charge today” or “pay me when you’re able”. Warm handshakes aren’t taxable.

Primary care physicians have been caring for the uninsured and the underinsured for much longer than Obamacare. Primary Care is the greatest value in healthcare.
Now, more than ever, it’s time to remind our nation,
“We’ve been here for you, we’re still here for you. Let’s keep the politics out of it.”

Guy L. Culpepper, MD

You Make Me Better

Our Team is Our Strength

My wife and I just returned from Wyoming for our anniversary trip.IMG_5416
27 years of marriage.
She tells me it feels like 27 minutes… underwater.
Who am I to argue?

Marriage is much like Primary Care.
It can be suffocating and elating, tearful and joyful.
Sometimes all in one day.

We left together and we returned together. Which is one answer to the question,
“How do you stay together for so long?”
Hang on and keep moving. Together.
The passion for marriage, much like for medicine, ebbs and flows.
So it is with tides, careers, hormones, and opinions.
Of course, the love is always there.
But at times, it’s less about love and more about holding on.
Primary care physicians are like my remarkable wife. They are very good at holding on.

Here’s another key:
(and you can forget everything else, if you just remember this)
Know that your partner makes you better.

When times are tough, when you’re tired, sad, or forgetful, turn to the ones around you.
Your team is your strength.IMG_5245

Some of the greatest people that I’ve ever known are physicians.
But this post is not about physicians.
It’s about the team that makes physicians better.

As our country struggles with ways to improve primary care,
we must be certain that our team is also rewarded.
We could not do what we do, as well as we do it, without these wonderful people.

IMG_5354Many of my patients are willing to put up with me because of the pleasant greetings that they receive from my front office staff.
My receptionist’s smile can make you feel better.

When my medical assistant reminded me about your drug allergy, she added it to your record. I looked like an attentive physician. I was attentive because she was.
It was my medical assistant that saved your life.

I am better because of my team.

I can remove your mole. Expertly. But you’ll want my assistant to draw your blood.
She has a gift. You’ll hardly feel it. She also gives much better shots than I ever could.

My nurse knew the moment she brought your husband into the exam room that he was really sick. I was with another patient, but she had the foresight to check his oxygen level. She’s very good at knowing when someone’s in trouble. She called the ambulance.
I gave her the flowers that you sent.

Oh… and about remembering the school that your son attends, which pharmacy you use, and the last time your mother in law visited you… yes, my medical assistant reminded me.

I am surrounded by dedicated and caring people. They make me better.

Our office is clean because of the delightful people that come in around 10 PM every night to clean it. Yes, I’m often here to see them. That’s a different post. You would notice if they didn’t show up. Doctors and nurses can be very messy.

Then there’s the business side of what we do. It’s called managing an office.
Somehow, a thousand times a day, our office manager does the impossible.
Orchestrating the moods and needs, complaints and requests, credits and debits
of a business wound tighter than a worn out pocket watch.
Every now and then someone says, “Thank you.”

Improving and rewarding primary care
means

improving and rewarding the people around us.

Independent primary care physiciansIMG_5374
must be rewarded for providing the
foundation of our nation’s healthcare.

And that reward must be sufficient
to share with our entire team.
Our partners make us better.

By the way, when my wife comes
up to gather air for another 27 years,
I’ll be telling her “thanks” too.
There’s nobody I’d rather be underwater with.

Guy L. Culpepper, MD