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Obama Administration Implements “Mystery Shopper” Initiative to Address the Increasing Shortage of Primary Care Doctors

The Obama administration has labeled the increasing shortage of primary care doctors as a “critical public policy problem.” In an effort to address this issue, the administration intends to assemble a team of “mystery shoppers” to pose as patients, call doctors’ offices, and request appointments in order to see how difficult it is for people to obtain care when their health problems arise. In addition to better understand the problematic shortage of primary care doctors, the survey will also attempt to discover whether doctors are accepting patients with private health insurance while at the same time refusing to attend to those insured by government health care programs.

The survey will be conducted by a federal contractor who will call 4,185 doctors’ offices. The number of surveys will be evenly conducted throughout nine states: Florida, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Caroline, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia. Each office will be called at least twice, one call from a person claiming to be privately insured while another federally insured, inquiring about whether the office is accepting new patients. Some mystery shoppers will pretend to be in need of a routine checkup, while others will claim to have symptoms necessary of more urgent care. Furthermore, mystery shoppers will not identify themselves as government workers and will block the caller ID of the incoming calls. A third call will be made to eleven percent of doctors, in which the callers will identify themselves as calling on behalf of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The caller will ask doctors about which types of insurance they accept and then compare those answers with the mystery shopper calls, noting any discrepancies. The survey data collected will be kept confidential and will not identify any individual doctors. With last year’s passing of the new health care law, it is predicted that more than 30 million people will obtain health care coverage. Therefore, the federal government finds it necessary to conduct this mystery shopper survey in an effort to fully understand the shortage of primary care doctors and ultimately fix the problem.

Physicians should understand their options when dealing with Medicare patients. Physicians can choose to limit the number of Medicare patients that they see. Physicians can also choose to be “nonparticipating” or can choose to “opt-out” of Medicare. If you are a physician with questions about your Medicare participation options, please contact a Wachler & Associates attorney at 248-544-0888.