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What Primary Care Physicians Need To Know About Healthcare Reform

DrRich is obviously far more intelligent than those wayward Democrat Congresspersons, whose last-minute “yes” votes Speaker Pelosi is seducing with her winning smile, and with her double-super-hope-to-die promise that the Senate will surely agree with the reconciliation package the House has finally assembled.

Unlike Pelosi’s reluctant Blue Dogs, DrRich understands that once the House has deemed the Senate bill to have been passed, and the President signs it into law, and the confetti drops and the champagne pops and the press goes into raptures and the work begins to revise Mt.Rushmore, the odds immediately become vanishingly small that the President, the Senate, or even the 200 House Democrats who really like the new law, will actually then embark on a new, prolonged, contentious spectacle of a reconciliation fight in the Senate.

Rather, once healthcare reform becomes law, political expediency dictates that we in the teeming masses never hear another word about healthcare until after the November elections. We will be distracted by more pressing matters, from which there will be many to choose — gasoline prices, Iranian nuclear weapons, economic collapses in the PIIGs, etc.

Now, DrRich does not have the stamina to study the new law all at once as a whole. He must bite off little pieces. And the first thing he sought in embarking on his study of our new healthcare system was evidence of how the new law would rescue the Primary Care Physician (PCP).

DrRich has decided it is time to begin studying the 2700-page healthcare reform bill that the Senate passed on December 24, as that is the bill which will actually become the law of the land. In the fall, DrRich had spent quite a bit of time with the House bill. This was such a painful and useless exercise that DrRich decided he would not waste any more of his time with proposed legislation, but instead (as Nancy Pelosi has wisely suggested) would wait until Congress passed a bill so he could find out what’s in it.

True, the House hasn’t really passed the Senate bill yet, and what’s more, hasn’t even deemed it to have passed. But DrRich, as mentioned, is smart enough to see that this is the legislation under which we and our progeny must endure from now on when we become sick.

This is important, since everyone acknowledges that we have a severe shortage of PCPs already, and when we add 32 million Americans to the rolls of the insured, that shortage will become extremely acute. Further, we know that very few medical school graduates are deciding to become PCPs, and further, that the PCPs who are in practice today are becoming older rapidly, and many may not be around in 10 years (or even in 10 months, once this reform bill passes).

As we all have heard, our President and his Congress have explicitly recognized the problem, and have frequently explicated on the need to build up and support our beleaguered primary care workforce. They have promised that their healthcare reforms will aggressively address this issue. And it is largely due to this promise that prominent physician organizations, like the AMA (which really represents a relatively small minority of the medical profession) and the American College of Physicians (which represents a large proportion of internists, of whom many are PCPs), have come out in support of the President’s reform efforts.

DrRich believes, of course, that for the Feds to suddenly make themselves the champions of PCPs, after spending nearly two decades systematically rendering primary care medicine a completely untenable proposition for American physicians, would be an unlikely outcome for any reform bill. Just to remind his readers, here’s what DrRich has previously observed about the carefully engineered plight of the American PCP:

“Their pay is determined arbitrarily by Acts of Congress, not by what they’re worth to their patients or to the market, and indeed in this way PCPs have a lot in common with workers in the old Soviet collectives.

They are directed to “practice medicine” by guidelines and directives which are handed down from on high; guidelines which, being forcibly based on what is called “evidence-based medicine,” necessarily address the average response of some large group of patients to the treatment being considered and do not allow much if any latitude for an individual patient’s needs; and which are often promulgated less to assure the excellent care of patients and more to further the agenda of various and competing interest groups, professional, governmental and otherwise.

They are limited to between 7.5 and 12.5 minutes per patient encounter (depending on the third party that controls a given patient’s medical care), and the content of what must occur during those 7.5 minutes is strictly determined by sundry Pay for Performance checklists, so as to strictly limit any interchanges between doctor and patient that do not meet the approved agenda for such encounters.

Their every move must be carefully documented according to incomprehensible rules, on innumerable forms and documents, that confound patient care but that greatly further the convenience of healthcare accountants and other stone-witted bureaucrats who are employed specifically to second-guess every clinical decision and every action the PCP takes.

They are expected to operate flawlessly under a system of federal rules, regulations and guidelines that cover hundreds of thousands of pages in immeasurable volumes that are never available in any readily accessible form. If they do not operate flawlessly according to those rules, regulations and guidelines, they are guilty of the federal crime of healthcare fraud. Furthermore, the specific meanings of these rules, regulations and guidelines are not merely opaque and difficult to ascertain, but indeed they are fundamentally indeterminate – that is, no individual or group of individuals in existence can say what they mean. So, PCPs operate under a massive quantum cloud of rules as best they can, but their actual status (regarding healthcare fraud) is, like Schrodinger’s cat, fundamentally unknowable – until the “box is opened” (typically through criminal prosecution), whereupon the meaning of the rules is finally crystallized in a court of law, and doctors who had been practicing in good faith find that they have at least a 50- 50 chance (like the cat) of learning that they are actually professionally dead.

Worst of all, PCPs have been charged with the duty of covertly rationing their patients’ healthcare at the bedside, and they have been pressed to nullify the classic doctor-patient relationship, by the healthcare bureaucracy that determines their professional viability, by the United States Supreme Court, and by the bankrupt, new-age ethical precepts of their own profession.”

How does our new healthcare law propose to “fix” these problems?  DrRich can find two proposed solutions in the Senate bill.

First, the new law promises to address some of the pay discrepancy which punishes doctors for going into primary care specialties. It is unclear to DrRich how much this new pay fix will bring to PCPs. He will merely observe that, until now, the Feds have intentionally rendered primary care medicine such a soul-wrenching, personally and professionally demeaning endeavor that it has pushed most PCPs beyond mere anger, frustration, or resignation. Many of them are desperately looking for any practicable exit strategy. And to DrRich’s thinking, since it is not primarily their relatively low income that has caused all this anguish, a mere boost in income cannot overcome it.

But, of course, that’s for the PCPs themselves to decide.

Second, the new law proposes to fund new training opportunities for PCPs. This also sounds nice. But DrRich wonders what effect these new training programs will have, when the training programs that already exist cannot come close to filling their slots.

DrRich contends that these two stated “fixes” for manufacturing more PCPs cannot possibly provide an actual solution to the PCP shortage, and further, that the authors of the Senate bill cannot possibly believe they will.  And so, DrRich decided to look a little deeper.

The answer to the PCP shortage – at least, the answer our political leaders are actually relying upon – is revealed deep in the Senate bill, in Section 5501, where the definition of “Primary Care Practitioner” is actually provided. Note, first of all, that once this bill becomes the law of the land, “PCP” will no longer mean “primary care physician,” but rather, will mean “primary care practitioner.”

And here’s how the new law defines Primary Care Practioners:

The term ‘primary care practitioner’ means an individual who —

(I) is a physician (as described in section 1861(r)(1)) who has a primary specialty designation of family medicine, internal medicine, geriatric medicine, or pediatric medicine; or

(II) is a nurse practitioner, clinical nurse specialist, or physician assistant (as those terms are defined in 9 section 1861(aa)(5))

And so, to his readers who are primary care physicians, DrRich must report that the real “fix” your political leaders have envisioned for the PCP shortage has been to declare you and nurse practitioners to be functionally (and legally) equivalent.  This, DrRich submits, is all you need to know.

Having painstakingly reduced you unfortunate practitioners of primary care medicine to tools of the state – whose job is to follow the guidelines and place chits on the checklists which are handed down from on high, and to fill out the electronic forms which are designed not to advance patient care but to convenience the healthcare accountants who will thereby judge your “quality” – it is only natural for the central authority to eventually notice that you really don’t need all that training to do the kind of job they have invented for you. Nurses – who can be “trained up” much more rapidly than you, who will work for much less money than you, and who (they think) will be much less recalcitrant about following handed-down directives than you – will fill the gap. And you, doctor, can go pound salt.

DrRich must hasten to add, by the way, that, regarding the nurse practitioners, he believes the Feds have miscalculated. DrRich knows a lot of nurse practitioners and greatly admires their professionalism. He believes that “PCP” has been so successfully demeaned that many fewer nurse practitioners than our political leaders think will actually jump at the opportunity to become one (especially when you take into account the liability you assume when you becomes a PCP in a non-tort-reform paradigm like the one our leaders have made for us). Trusting in their common sense, DrRich will leave the nurse practitioners to their own wise counsel.

To his primary care physician friends, who have bravely held on, clinging to the promises made by our political leaders that their noble efforts will not go unrewarded, and to the assurances made by their own professional organizations that all will be well once the system is reformed, DrRich is forced to say: Told you so.

He also reminds you that it is still not illegal to opt out, and urges you to consider that it soon might be.

*This blog post was originally published at The Covert Rationing Blog*

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