More doctors run for General Assembly seats as health care interest rises

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By Annika McGinnis, Capital News Service (Sept. 16, 2014)

ANNAPOLIS — Five physicians are running for seats in the Maryland General Assembly this year, a spike in doctor interest in political service that the candidates say coincides with rising state regulation over health.

About a year after Maryland’s troubled rollout of its Affordable Care Act individual exchange website and in a time when health care is dominating the nation’s conversation, the physicians are running to have more of a direct role in forming the decisions they said are affecting their patients and practices.

Most of the Maryland candidates are Democrats, echoing the state’s majority party. On the national level, most physicians running for Congress are Republicans critical of President Barack Obama’s controversial health initiative.

In Maryland, the doctors said, Obamacare was just a sliver of the pie representing increasing state health regulation, including everything from approving medical marijuana use to requiring licenses for doctors to mix medications.

Each of the five candidates is a board-certified physician, Maryland State Medical Society “MedChi” CEO Gene Ransom said.

“It’s not just the ACA; it’s everything,” Ransom said. “I think as doctors realize that more and more of their care is government-funded and regulated, they’re going to get more involved in how the rules are made — and that’s good.”

With more government mandates affecting physicians’ day-to-day work, doctors are concerned about a “fundamental” change in the way health care is practiced — moving away from traditional family-based relationships to more of a corporate structure, said Republican District 42 Senate candidate Dr. Tim Robinson, a retired anesthesiologist at St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson.

“Physicians are very, very concerned about what is happening with the physician-patient relationship,” Robinson said. “The people making the decisions need to be better informed.”

Often, “seemingly very reasonable and logical regulations and laws can impact people in unexpected ways,” said Democratic District 12 House of Delegates candidate Dr. Terri Hill, who runs a plastic surgery practice in Columbia.

“It’s about understanding, on a day-to-day basis, what are the things that really affect people’s lives,” Terri Hill said.

Physicians are rare in the state’s General Assembly: Only three have served in the past 25 years, MedChi reported. Delegate Dr. Dan Morhaim, D-Baltimore County, who has served since 1995, is the only practicing physician serving in the state legislature.

Often the “only person in the room who’s made clinical decisions,” Morhaim said he’s seen a “disconnect between those making decisions and those who actually live with them.”

For instance, a 2013 law requiring doctors to obtain licenses to mix medications causes “a huge amount of confusion” and delay in medical services, Terri Hill said.

That’s just one example of a law the state passed that needed more input from doctors on the actual on-the-ground effects, the candidates said.

“Sometimes when (legislators are) dealing with these issues, it’s helpful to say, ‘OK, this is what we’re planning on doing — what does that mean from a practical point of view?’” Ransom said.

Obamacare issues will likely come into the fray again as the administration of Gov. Martin O’Malley aims to roll out the state’s rebuilt health care exchange in November.

The General Assembly needs to “step up” and ensure “proper oversight and accountability” during that process, said Dr. Clarence Lam, a District 12 Democratic House of Delegates candidate and preventive medicine physician at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

Lam said he also hoped to address rising medication shortages of some drugs that he attributed to ownership issues, quality problems or contamination.

The candidates said the state has not fully worked out implementation of a new law allowing people with certain illnesses to obtain medical marijuana.

If elected, Robinson said he had talked with some fellow candidates about forming a bipartisan physicians’ caucus, though the other candidates said such a group had not yet been formally discussed. Robinson added he hoped more doctors in the legislature could help de-politicize health issues that have become increasingly divisive across the nation.

Along with Robinson, Morhaim, Hill and Lam, Democrat Jay Jalisi, an ear, nose and throat physician who is not currently practicing, is also running for a House of Delegates seat in District 10.

The doctors also said they hoped their background in patient care, including making critical decisions in stressful situations, could bring a more personal and “holistic” way of thinking to issues beyond health.

But doctors could come with their own set of issues. Balancing clinical work with time in Annapolis isn’t easy, Ransom said. Morhaim works emergency shifts several weekends in session before taking a break until his legislative work ends. Terri Hill said she plans to run the surgical side of her practice for the nine months the General Assembly is out and then do administrative work on weekends and Monday mornings while serving in office.

But the candidates said the tradeoff would be worth it.

“All of us got into this business because we wanted to help people,” said Dr. Hugh Hill, an emergency physician and former Democratic District 16 Senate candidate who lost in the primary. “(It was) the sense and duty of not sitting on the sidelines and griping anymore but getting in and pitching.” original story


Even doctors in dark about new health plans

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By Jayne O’Donnell and Annika McGinnis, USA TODAY (Nov. 10, 2013)

More than a month after and 15 state-based exchanges opened for business, consumers and even physicians are finding it’s isn’t easy or even possible sometimes to find out which doctors and hospitals are in the plans’ provider networks.

“Some states, they have it, and for some, it isn’t available. It ‘s a big unknown for the patient,” says Anders Gilberg, senior vice president of government affairs for the Medical Group Management Association, whose members manage doctors’ practices. “It’s very much up in the air.”

That means insurance shoppers often can’t choose plans that their doctors participate in — or that include doctors near them. It also means doctors may not be able to confirm they’re in a plan when consumers ask them. While consumers may now occasionally find a doctor listed on their commerical insurance plan isn’t accepting patients or is no longer on the network, at least they can reliably find provider lists and doctors at least know what plans they currently participate in.

Gilberg says he wouldn’t buy a plan “if I didn’t know if my physicians were in the network or the hospital was in the network.”

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and others say there’s plenty of time for consumers to shop for plans and note many of the uninsured don’t even have doctors.

“The Health Insurance Marketplace will significantly improve access to care for people who lack affordable health coverage today,” said Joanne Peters, an HHS spokeswoman. “The good thing about the law is that now people have more options to shop for a plan that includes their doctor, whereas before they didn’t have the ease and flexibility to do that.”

The uncertainty stems from the general glitchiness that remains for some state exchanges and the federal site,, which is selling plans for 36 states that didn’t set up their own exchanges. It’s also due to the fact that insurers are still deciding what doctors they want on their networks and often haven’t even informed doctors if they are including them on their networks.

Some insurers have clauses in contracts with their existing doctors that say the doctors have to participate in any plans the insurers offer in that state. Doctors who don’t want to participate on the exchange plans might have had to opt out, which some may not have realized, says Sam Unterricht, a Brooklyn ophthalmologist who heads the Medical Society of the State of New York. And many doctors and hospitals are still negotiating with insurers over rates.

A survey released last week by the New York medical society found 40% of 405 doctors said they didn’t know how they wound up on insurers’ exchange plans. Just 6% said they chose to be on plans and 16% said they had to participate as part of a contract. The rest said they declined to participate. Three quarters of the doctors said they had never received a fee schedule from insurers for the plans.

In an attempt to cut costs, insurers are also cutting the number of hospitals and doctors they include in networks, and that’s a process that may continue through December.

“The intent is that when January rolls around, they should have all of the providers,” says Farzan Bharucha, a health care strategist at consulting firm Kurt Salmon.

It’s common that doctor and hospital networks are updated throughout the year, says Robert Zirkelbach, spokesman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, which represents insurers. And all of the networks have to meet “adequacy standards.”

In one rural area of Tennessee, there will only be two insurance carriers, and one isn’t listing any doctors yet. Another is a new co-op insurer and is still building its medical network, says broker J. Darlene Tucker, based in Scotts Hill, Tenn. Even so, she says her customers have bigger concerns now.

“At this point, clients aren’t even asking about who is in the network;” Tucker says. “They are still trying to get far enough into the website to determine what their monthly premium will be and what insurance plan they can afford.”

Some doctors say they’re still waiting to hear what rates insurers are paying — or they are appalled they are so low.

Michelle Berger, an Austin-based ophthalmologist, says she has only heard from one of the insurance companies she works with and she signed a contract to be on Blue Cross of Texas’ exchange plans. She did so before she saw the fees she would be paid, which she says are only slightly better than Medicaid.

“I’m not going to be able to take a full day of exchange patients and keep my doors open,” she says.

Peters says there will be enough doctors for the newly insured.

“We have put protections in place to ensure that consumers have choice through good access to networks of providers,” Peters said. “Consumer protections in federal and state law require health plans to include a sufficient network of providers as well as essential community providers.”

In Sugarland, Texas, internal medicine physician Elizabeth Torres says she doesn’t know what plans she’s listed on, but she does know her profit margins are so thin she won’t be able to accept many patients at rates that are lower than Medicare.

“We’re hoping to hear more information,” Torres says. “Everything’s trickling out a little at a time.”

Around some other states:

In New York, broker James Schutzer found a 2,025-page spreadsheet of doctors when he looked up hospitals on the NY State of Health exchange recently. When he went on Empire Blue Cross’ site, he got the same spreadsheet and a “Find a Doctor Alert” that noted the individual and small group health products are “under construction.”

Unterricht says the accuracy of the provider lists will be suspect, too, because doctors may unwittingly be on an insurers list since they already accept their commercial plans. “Some may not accept new patients right away, and some may not accept new patients at all,” he says.

In California, the provider network for individual plans became searchable Wednesday, and there’s still no access to the plans for small businesses in the Small Business Health Options Program or physicians in the networks. The state had to start from scratch building the medical network because there was no consistency in medical coding, says Sacramento broker Laurie Rood. Programmers didn’t realize each insurance company had a different physician code.

In Maryland, the exchange does offer an option to search plans by provider and insurance company. The site compiles the list of providers so people don’t have to go to the company website to check on their own. Gene Ransom, CEO of the Maryland State Medical Society, says Maryland’s exchange plans are so similar to what’s already commercially available, the process went more smoothly than in many other states.

Like in Texas, where Berger says, “It’s a comedy of errors right now.”

Contributing: Fola Akinnibi original story