Monday, February 23, 2004
Concierge medicine now supported by trade association.
A new national organization has been formed to serve as an advocate and information clearinghouse for practitioners of concierge medicine -- a controversial model of patient care that usually requires patients to pay an annual membership fee for such perquisites as customized-care plans and round-the-clock access to doctors. Officials with the not-for-profit American Society of Concierge Physicians said doctors in about two dozen states now offer some form of concierge service but remain a small fraction of all practicing physicians. An ASCP spokeswoman said the group has 26 members, representing "10% to 20%" of doctors involved in concierge services. John Blanchard, president and co-founder of the group and founder of Premier Private Physicians in Detroit, said he expects the number of physicians involved in concierge services to grow dramatically in the next several years because the model "allows (doctors) to practice medicine the way it was intended to be practiced -- with the patient as the focus." The organization has scheduled its first annual conference for May 27 and 28 in Denver, where about 20 practitioners from across the country will discuss ethical, legal, regulatory and social issues surrounding retainer-based practices.Membership in the ASCP requires payment of a $500 fee; the application form doesn't say whether this is an annual or one-time fee.
For the time being, CMS is taking no position as to whether retainers paid to physicians to secure preferential treatment constitute "balance billing" or "private contracts" under Medicare law. A plausible argument could be made either way, but if CMS were to take the position that the retainers were either one, that would be a serious blow to the concierge-medicine movement. "Balance billing" is limited to 109.25% of the Medicare approved amount for covered services; presumably concierge retainers are significantly in excess of that amount. "Private contracting" is permitted under the Medicare law, but it requires that the physician agree not to bill Medicare for any covered services for any Medicare beneficiaries (not just the one with whom the private contracted is entered into) for a period of three years. There are some specialties that can afford to take the hit (i.e., those with relatively few Medicare beneficiaries and those with a high percentage of services that are not covered by Medicare), but many can not. A Feb. 2004 publication (Physician's News Digest) does a nice job of reviewing the developments from the AMA (so far, the practice is deemed to be not inconsistent with their ethics opinions, which are supportive of diversity and innovation in the delivery of physicians' services, as long as certain guidelines (adopted by the Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs at its June 2003 meeting) are adhered to).
The most sustained criticism of concierge medicine is from Troy Brennan (faculty member at Harvard's Medical School, School of Public Health, and Law School ("Luxury Primary Care -- Market Innovation or Threat to Access?" N. Eng. J. Med. 2002;346:1165-1168) (requires subscription), who identifies a number of ethical concerns with concierge medicine: (1) transitioning from a standard to a concierge practice may result in the abandonment of existing patients or in a diminished quality of care; (2) concierge medicine undermines the cross-subsidization of care for patients with lousy insurance or no health insurance at all; and (3) by allowing physicians to focus on the needs of a relatively small patient population defined by their ability to pay fairly steep retainers, the practice could exacerbate inequities in access to care that already exist. Of course, the flip side, as Brennan concedes, is that the development of concierge medicine may be the crystallizing event that leads organized medicine to examine more seriously than it has to date the myriad ways in which financial inequities limit access to care and to start addressing them in a concerted fashion.