fraud in medicine: navigating your failing healthcare system

Navigating health care in the United States is challenging and challenged. Currently the 800+ insurance companies, each with multiple “products”, the 500+ electronic medical records that don’t talk to each other, the increasing volume of information and the decreasing number of physicians make getting care very challenging. Here are some steps to help you navigate.

1. Get your records and keep copies.

Get the disc of any radiology studies: MRI, xray, CT scan, echocardiogram. Keep them. Hand carry to your visit with the specialist. Yes, I know your doctor said they’d be sent and I know the specialist’s office said they’d get them, but I have two friends so far this week in two days who traveled 2 hours or more to a specialist who DID NOT HAVE THE STUDIES. Do NOT give your only copy to the specialist. Demand two. Either get them on different days or just pay for the second disc.

A clinic closed in our area a year ago. It was in three counties, 3400+ patients. The physician owner was not paying the bills, including the electronic medical record. We couldn’t get records, the emr company wouldn’t release them. Gone. Thirteen people called to be new patients with me the day the clinic closed and we took five new patients a week for 6 months. You need a copy of your records.

2. In the specialist’s office or ER, do NOT give your records to the receptionist.

Hand them to the physician only. Hand them copies, you keep copies. “When will you be getting back to me?” That is, if it’s two hundred pages of complicated records, when does the physician think they can read (some) of them? The real truth is that WE CANNOT READ ALL OF THE OLD RECORDS. We don’t have time. We have to sleep. We read what we can and there are MOUNTAINS of old records that we haven’t read. I have files of old records and I pull them for visits so we can look up specific things. I have asked patients to go through and find specific things: find me the MRI report of your back.

Because what is really happening in many offices is that the information is being scanned but not read. Truly. I think this is dangerous. I had a patient who had five specialists and me. I was sending updates to his rheumatologist, with letters, asking questions and not getting a word back. Finally the patient went for the two hour trip to see the specialist, who called me: “I had not read any of your notes! I didn’t know what was happening!” I saw RED. Oh, so my letters and the ER notes and the other specialist notes that I faxed to you MYSELF about a very sick, very complicated medicine WERE NOT READ? I wanted to scream at her, but I didn’t. I just said, “We really need your help and I have been trying to keep you informed.” Through gritted teeth. Then later I kick and hit my heavy bag. And at that point the specialist was finally helpful. It still makes me furious just to think about it, so I have to work on forgiveness once again.

In my office, if a physician (me) has not read it, it has not been scanned. There will NOT be surprises in the scanned chart. The unread old records are filed alphabetically and when I have a time turner, I will have time to read them all, right? And then in a visit, the person asks if I got their mammogram report. I have to LOOK, because I sign off on about a billion different pieces of paper a day and I really don’t remember the names of all the people who had normal mammograms. I don’t try to remember that: I know who has an abnormal one, because I am worrying about them.

3. Make a record trail that you can quote.

When you call the physicians office, get the name of each person you speak to. Write it down. Have them spell it. Ask how soon you will be called back. Ask what you should do if you do not get a call back. (That being said, every physician has to prioritize the calls. It’s sickest first, not first come first served. If your call really is an emergency, then you should be in an ambulance, not calling your doctor.)Our local mental health was in such disarray, understaffed, underfunded, that my instructions to non-suicidal patients were: “Call every day, be polite, and call until they make you an appointment. Do not wait for the call back. Call daily, they just don’t have enough staff.”

If you fax them the missing notes, keep a copy of the fax proof. Call after your fax the missing records. Ask if they received them and then write down the name of the person you spoke to, date and time. I put a computer message in the chart for 99% of the phone calls I have with patients. I may miss 1% because I get interrupted or a really sick patient arrives or another phone call or whatever. Ask when the physician or his assistant will be calling you back about the records or better yet, make an appointment: “He did not have the records, so I would like an appointment as soon as possible now that he has them.” This forces your physician to look at the old records, because the patient is coming in. I do not read old records before a new patient shows up. I used to, but then people no show for a one hour new patient visit and I feel used, abused and grumpy. So I don’t touch the old records until you show up. After two one hour new patient no shows we tell the person they need to find another physician. Two strikes on the new patient visit and they are out.

4. Hospital.

If a person is really really sick, family or friends should be there. Ask questions. Who is each person who comes in the room? Do they have the clinic notes? Don’t assume they do, I am not on our hospital’s EMR because it costs 2 million dollars. The inpatient hospitalist doctors almost never call for my notes. I fax my notes anyhow and call them, but the information gap is BIG ENOUGH TO DRIVE THE MOON THROUGH. Really. I am sorry to burst the electronic medical record bubble, but we have 500ish different EMRs in the US right now and they do not talk to each other, so every patient arrives accompanied by 2 years of paper records (or more), 200 pages or more. I joke that they need a bigger doctor because the paper is too heavy for my 130 pounds. And many many times, the hospital medicine list is wrong. It is old. It’s out of date. The person is sick as hell in the emergency room and they don’t remember that their lisinopril dose was changed three weeks ago. One person in the room with the sick person and keep a notebook and write down what the physicians and nurses say, time, date. Then if they start contradicting each other, ASK.

5. In clinic

Give your doctor the whole list right away: my foot hurts, my chest is really bad when I try to run up the stairs, there’s this thing on my arm and is my cholesterol too high? Don’t discuss one thing in detail and then bring up the next. I have long visits, but I can’t do justice to that list in one visit and I have to prioritize. This requires negotiation: the chest pain has my attention. You may be focused on your foot, but the number one killer is heart, so your doctor will worry about your heart first.

If the doctor asks you to bring in all your pills, bring them all in. There are three different types of metoprolol and five strengths of each. Do you know the type and strength of every drug? I want to see your vitamin bottles because vitamin B1 can cause neuropathy from too high doses and yes, they can sell high doses. I want to see the supplements: why are you taking bovine thymus/testicle pills? By the way, if the doctor actually looks at the supplements, keep that doctor. Most don’t.

6. Be careful out there. Good luck.

Long notes and unhappy patients.

A patient of mine saw a cardiologist recently.

His previous cardiologist has retired. The patient had a cardiac bypass in the past, he has a stent, he has known coronary heart disease and he’s in the young half of my practice. That is, under 60.

He had not seen a cardiologist for 2-3 years because he had a work injury, worked with Labor and Industries, the case was closed, he couldn’t go back to work, he found a lawyer. He lost his regular health insurance along with the job, so couldn’t see the cardiologist.

The L & I case is reopened. A physiatrist recommended specific treatment that was not done, and that allowed the case to reopen.

The specific treatment center then notes that he has heart disease and that he needs clearance from a cardiologist. I set him up with a new cardiologist.

“How was the visit?” I ask.

He shrugs. “The staff was nice.”

“I have the note.”

“The cardiologist spent under ten minutes with me. It was clear that she was rushed. She did not seem very interested. It was difficult to get my questions answered.”

“Her note is six pages.”

He snorts. “Great that she could get a six page note out of that visit.”

“Do you want a copy?”

“No.”

He is cleared for the specific treatment.

I have no doubt that the cardiologist spent more than 6-8 minutes on his visit and his note. But not in the room. Other people are entering the information filled out in the waiting room, medicines, allergies, past medical history, family history. Hopefully the cardiologist is reading my note and letter. But the problem is, doctors aren’t doing it in the room. So the impression left with the patient is that we spend 6-8 minutes on their visit, we are late, we are rushed. Doctors are looking at data. They are not listening to patients.

Medical Economics, a journal that arrives without me asking for it, says over and over that we need more physician “extenders”, that we need to have people doing the data entry, people doing the patient teaching, more people and machines….No. They are wrong. We need LESS barriers between us and the patients, not MORE. We need more time with patients. Every single extender we add burns physicians out more, because the salary has to be paid AND more patients seen faster to do that AND we are still ultimately responsible for knowing and reading and absorbing every single piece of information that is placed in that patient’s chart. An extender is NOT an extension of my brain and an extender is another person I have to communicate with and train.

Just. Say. No. to the managers who pile MORE barriers between the physician and the patient. NO.


It just makes me so mad that he lost his health insurance BECAUSE he got injured at work and so then his heart disease goes untreated as well… can’t afford medicines…if he then has a heart attack while uninsured we lifeflight him to Seattle, it costs a fortune, he loses his house and property and then is on medicaid and may end up on permanent disability, and what are the chances he returns to work? The US medical corporate money grubbing is insane. Single payer, medicare for all, make the US great again.

P for prior authorization

The letter P and my theme is happy things. But what comes to mind are these P words: prior authorization,  pharmaceutical, payer.

Prior authorizations are NOT a happy thing. The latest twist from insurance companies, three different ones in the last week, is that they are requiring prior authorization for old inexpensive medicines. I ordered a muscle relaxant for night time only on Thursday last week for a person with a flare of back pain. Friday I was dismayed to see that the insurance company was requiring a prior authorization. I have to prioritize the order of urgency of all the work: I did not have time. I called the patient who had paid cash for it. The insurance company wins. They didn’t have to pay for a covered medicine because they made it difficult to get. They keep the patient’s money.

Prior authorizations are on the rise very rapidly. With over 800 insurance companies, each with a different website, each with multiple insurance “products”, no one can keep up with it. It is a shell game, the ball under the cup, three cups moving, but the ball is the money and it’s already palmed by the insurance companies. I predict that this will continue to get worse. We do need a single payer system for the simple reason that physicians will not be able to hire enough staff to learn and navigate 800 different websites. I do most prior authorizations on the phone in the room with the patient: the other day we spent 35 minutes on the phone only to have the insurance company say that we had called the wrong number. Call another one. Not the one on the insurance card. We could complain to the state insurance commissioner, but my patient is afraid of losing their insurance. Time’s up. The prior authorization is not obtained, and we are five minutes into the next patient’s visit. People are finding that the medicine they have taken for 20 years suddenly requires prior authorization.

And remember: prior authorization is your insurance company making rules and extra paperwork for your physician. It is advertised as a way to save money, but it costs YOU money. Back in 2009, the estimate was that physicians in the US had to spend 90,000$ per year EACH on employees to do prior authorizations by computer or phone. And YOUR insurance dollars go to the employees at the insurance company refusing medicines and dreaming up new medicines to refuse. They change the contract. Every year and during the year. The law is now that 80 cents of each dollar must go to healthcare, not profit, but those computer and phone employees are counted as healthcare. Do we really think that is healthcare?

Take CT scans. Medicare does NOT require prior authorization. But most insurance companies do. Think about that. Is age the difference? CT scans increase cancer risk over time so physicians don’t order them by reflex.

And for pharmaceuticals, insurance companies often have an on line formulary. But it is different for every insurance “product” in individual companies. A patient and I were trying to sort out a less expensive medicine on a website and we were having difficulty figuring out which insurance she had. Multiple abbreviations and color coding and we could spend the entire clinic visit just figuring it out. Is that what medicine is in the United States? You can say that someone else in the office could do it, but the more employees your physician hires, the less time the physician will spend with you, because he or she has to pay all of those people.

If there was one set of rules, one website, I would learn it. Medicare for all, single payer, when will the United States people wake up and tell congress: if you want our vote, make it so.

P

But wait, where are the happy things? I am so happy that I still am in business in my small clinic, p for patients and patience and prayer and single payer, we will have medicare for all in my lifetime. Whether I am still a practicing physician in the US at that time is uncertain. If I can’t afford my own health insurance, my clinic will close. Wouldn’t that be ironic?

 

hipaa, health insurance, and health information

Blogging from A to Z, my theme is happy things. Letter H is for HIPAA and health insurance and health information.

H is for hipaa: the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act, from 1996. I’ve been thinking about HIPAA and I have a question: if the patient handouts are supposed to be written at the fifth grade reading level for patients, why doesn’t Congress have to write laws at the fifth grade reading level?

Ignorance of the law is no excuse, right? Everyone in the US is supposed to follow the laws. Have you read them? I am supposed to follow HIPAA, right? I am supposed to follow the Affordable Care Act, (also nicknamed ObamaCare). It is 3600 pages long. It is written by Congress and attorneys.

What about health insurance? Have you read your health insurance policy? It’s a contract. If multiple US citizens have difficulty reading, why isn’t health insurance written at a fifth grade level?

CMS too and triwest and medicaid. I do not have time as a physician to learn the language of their websites.  I run my own small practice. It is infuriating to try to read, understand and follow medicare, medicaid and Veterans Choice rules and they change every year. We ask why health care costs so much, and then there are over 800 different insurance companies, each with multiple insurance plans, and more and more people are hired to try to navigate and understand the rules. It’s ridiculous. We need a single payer system so there is ONE set of rules. Everybody in, nobody out.

At the UW Telepain telemedicine, I said that I show chronic pain patients the link to the Washington State Law about opioids and pain medicine.

One of the faculty said, “Patients can’t understand that.”

I said, “Well, I’m supposed to follow that law and I am not an attorney. ”

My patients are all smart in something. Some of them can’t read well. I have had two recently that I recognized a reading issue in the clinic room when I gave them a survey tool to fill out. I promptly said, “Let’s do this together.” I read them the questions and the answers. They are not stupid, but I am not sure that their reading skills were up to the form.

I am not using the American Academy of Family Practice patient handouts much because I think they are too dumb. I use the Mayo Clinic much more. I direct patients to the CDC, to NIH, to the Mayo Clinic website. Sometimes my patients may not be able to read at that level, but I think everyone appreciates being treated with respect. I am also happy to go over and explain more about a topic. I also warn them that there are loads of crappy medical sites and pseudo scientific sites and misinformation on the internet. If they want to look something up, I want them on a decent site.

Now how are these happy things to think about? It makes me happy to question my own behavior and my own assumptions. It makes me wonder how our country can insist that medical information has to be at a fifth grade level but lets Congress write laws that I find nearly unreadable.

Now I am warning my patients that a federal law may go into effect in January 2019, about opioids, and that it will be different and override the state law. Change will keep coming.

H

The photograph is from the beach last night: brant. What would the flock think about our health insurance? 

 

Eeeeeee

My theme is happy things, though sometimes they are things where I am trying to find the perspective to love what is happening.

When my son was little, I had Dr. Suess’s ABCs memorized: Ear, egg, elephant, E, e, e!

My words today are everybody, embody and evening.

E for Everybody. Everybody in, nobody out! This is one of the calls for Healthcare for all, and I am still a Mad as Hell Doctor, working for single payer.

Our state representative was here a year ago and said that there is not a mandate for healthcare for all. I said, “I politely disagree. We already have a law in place that emergency rooms cannot turn anyone away. They cannot refuse to treat a person. This is a mandate for care. Unfortunately, the emergency room is the most expensive and inefficient care, unless you are about to die. The emergency room cannot do chronic care: it cannot help people stop smoking, help lower blood pressure, help people with chronic illness such as diabetes, do preventative care like pap smears and checking kidney function to stave off renal failure. We have the mandate: now we need the political will to change to a single payer system that gives good care. A patient can see me in my family practice clinic a dozen times for the cost of one emergency room visit.” S o, everybody in, nobody out. The law that insurance companies can ONLY keep 20 cents of every dollar does not comfort me: I want my dollar to go to health care for everyone and not 1/5 to profit!

Embody: what do I embody? What do you embody? Do you treat your body well? Do you thank it? What is it carrying?

I see people so fixed on success and progress and getting goals, that sometimes we don’t pay any attention to our bodies. We treat the body like a tool, like a hammer or a wrench, use and abuse it, try to make it conform to some idea of external beauty, get angry when it breaks down. Fix me back to where I was three years ago, when I could work 12 hours a day and never ever paid attention to my body. Bad food, tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, gallons of caffeine, energy drinks, sugar, illegal drugs, no exercise… and then we are surprised when it breaks down? Even exercise is seen as an inconvenient and necessary job, like buying new tires for the car. When people say get me back to where I was, I ask, “Back to working the 12 hours a day that caused this damage? Do you think that is a good idea?

And I include myself in that! I have had pneumonia with sepsis symptoms twice. The second time I thought, how dumb I am! My father died and I did not take any time off. I just kept working and added executor to my jobs and cried daily. Is it any surprise that after a year of that I became ill? Now my goal is to not do medicine for more than forty hours a week and to listen to my body and to take breaks!

Evening: the sunset. I am so grateful for the day, for the night, for the light changing and the world turning, for the stars and the moon and the sun and the glorious, gorgeous, generous world.

E

This is an evening photograph from Mauna Loa last week.