I recently called my primary care physician (PCP) for the first time in years to get my immunization records, and encountered a strange message saying he was not currently seeing patients. My mom had apparently encountered the same message weeks ago. “Maybe he retired,” she suggested.
I did a quick google search of my PCP’s name to find an alternate contact number, and instead found a shocking article from the local newspaper. Apparently my PCP has been indicted for falsifying tax returns and participating in an online pharmacy organization that provided prescription drugs without an in-person physician examination.
Remote Prescribing: Lucrative, Pervasive, and Very Illegal
I did a quick search online and confirmed that the practice of offering prescription drugs through a “cyber doctor” prescription, relying only on a questionnaire is indeed very illegal.
It is also very pervasive. The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) reviewed 10,700 websites selling prescription drugs and found that 97% of them were “Not Recommended”. Of these, 88% do not require a valid prescription and 60% issue prescriptions per online consultation or questionnaire only.
What struck me was how this appeared to be a case where the market came together to produce a “triple win” for profit-seeking internet pharmacies, shady physicians (such as my own), and a subset of patients willing to pay a premium to access drugs (most commonly weight loss drugs, erectile dysfunction drugs, and commonly-abused antidepressants and painkillers).
According to one analysis, one such website offering prescriptions from its own doctors listed prices for fluoxetine (brand name Prozac) and alprazolam (brand name Xanax) that were roughly 400% to 1800% higher than prices from a more traditional Internet pharmacy not offering prescriptions. The fact that such “remote prescription” websites remain in business despite the huge price differential suggests that they are attracting patients willing to pay that premium to avoid seeing their regular doctor. And as for where that money is going—well, my doctor was alleged to have received roughly $2.5 million over six years.
On January 7, a federal appeals court rejected six Georgia primary care physicians’ (PCPs) challenge to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS) 20-year, sole-source relationship with the secretive, specialist-dominated federal advisory committee that determines the relative value of medical services. The American Medical Association’s (AMA) Relative Value Scale Update Committee (RUC) is, in the court’s view, not subject to the public interest rules that govern other federal advisory groups. Like the district court ruling before it, the decision dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims out of hand and on procedural grounds, with almost no discussion of content or merit.
Thus ends the latest attempt to dislodge what is perhaps the most blatantly corrosive mechanism of US health care finance, a star-chamber of powerful interests that, complicit with federal regulators, spins Medicare reimbursement to the industry’s advantage and facilitates payment levels that are followed by much of health care’s commercial sector. Most important, this new legal opinion affirms that the health industry’s grip on US health care policy and practice is all but unshakable and unaccountable, and it appears to have co-opted the reach of law.
The RUC exerts its influence by rolling up the collective interests of the nation’s most powerful medical specialty societies and, indirectly, the drug and device firms that support and benefit from their activity. The RUC uses questionable “methodologies,” closed to public scrutiny, to value medical services. CMS has historically accepted nearly 90 percent of the RUC’s recommendations without further due diligence. In a damning October 2010 Wall Street Journal expose, former CMS Administrator Tom Scully described the RUC’s processes as “indefensible.”
My in-laws are in town for my daughter’s graduation.
When I came home yesterday I was greeted with a big smile and vigorous handshake from my father-in-law. ”I just want to thank you,” he said, standing up from his chair, “for finding us a good doctor. The one you found for us is wonderful.”
My wife smiled at me warmly. I just earned myself big points. Yay!
Her parents and mine are both in their 80′s and are overall in remarkably good health. When I called my father after he had a minor surgery over the summer, my mother told me he had a ladder and was “on a bee hunt.” It’s a blessing to have them around, especially having them healthy.
My parents have a wonderful primary care physician, which takes a whole lot of pressure off of me to do family doctoring, and puts my mind at ease. I’ve only personally contacted him once when my dad had a prolonged time of vague fatigue and body aches. I try not to use the “I’m a doctor, so I am second-guessing you” card that I’ve had some patients’ children pull. I called his doctor more as a son who wanted a clear story about what was going on than as a physician with thoughts on the situation.
“I first want to say that I am very grateful my parents have gotten such good care from you,” I said at the start of the conversation. ”It’s nice to not have to wonder if they are getting good care.”Continue reading…