Articles Posted in Direct Pay (Concierge) Physician Practice

mobile-phone-in-hand-1438231-1-mHow could it not?

The healthcare industry is rapidly evolving.  As recently reported in U.S. News and World Report, next on telemedicine’s horizon may be virtual care clinics.  In fact, so-called virtual care will likely revolutionize the delivery of health care in the coming years. “Virtual,” in this context, alludes to the fact that care providers, doctors, nurses and therapists, may provide most care from many miles away.

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Various genres of “virtual care” delivery exists already.  One notable pioneer is Mercy Virtual.  Mercy, based in Chesterfield, Missouri, emphasizes that an objective of its mission is to ensure access to quality care, explaining: “Mercy Virtual’s mission is to connect patients with leading care providers whenever, wherever they need help.”  In recent years, many other medical businesses are finding and developing their own niches in the evolving virtual healthcare world.  Several of the numerous examples are: Teladoc, which provides online, 24/7 access to primary care physician services; American Well, which claims to offer “telehealth” to more than 100 million people in an online marketplace where customers select their healthcare provider from a list; Carena provides a range of healthcare services that include virtual visits for the employees of self-insured companies; Zipnosis is a platform that, through “phone and video care,” helps patients get answers to their healthcare questions and helps physicians treat primary care ailments; MeVisit enables “e-visits” that allow patients to use their mobile device to connect with a doctor.

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doctorThe American College of Physicians (ACP) recently released an informative policy position paper that assesses how “concierge” and similar direct pay health care arrangements between doctors and patients impact patient care. Our Georgia business and healthcare law firm follows developments in the healthcare industry that affect physicians, medical practices and other healthcare businesses.

“Direct Pay” refers to an important and evolving alternate payment model and health care arrangement between medical practices and patients. Rather than traditional fee-for-service reimbursement models that render physicians and medical practices dependent upon steerage of patients from insurers or other third-party payers, a typical direct pay contracting model utilizes a flat fee, often paid monthly or annually, which the patient pays out of pocket and “direct” to the doctor (as opposed to through an insurance transaction) to compensate the physician for access to a contractually-agreed menu of health care services. The hallmark of direct pay practices is, for the patient, greater access to the physician and, for the doctor, less red tape and a more rewarding professional experience focused on providing care. Direct pay physicians, of necessity, typically limit the number of patients they see, compared to a traditional, third-party payer based model.

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exam-room-1-260748-m.jpgA Michigan legislator’s bill, SB 1033, sponsored by Senator Patrick Colbeck, would benefit direct primary care doctors in that State, and the idea may warrant consideration in other States. The purpose of the bill is to provide physicians who convert their practice to a direct primary care model with the assurance that their medical practice will not be treated as an insurer regulated under state insurance regulations.

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Among other legal hurdles some physicians may face in developing a direct primary (or concierge) care practice model is avoiding the creation of an insurance product. This can be a central legal issue for such practices. A distinguishing feature of the direct primary care model is that the patient, sometimes referred to as a “member” or “enrollee,” receives medical care without paying anything other than a predetermined periodic fee, sometimes referred to as a “medical retainer.” The theory behind the insurance issue is that by accepting a set, predetermined fee in advance of the medical services, the physician or medical practice is, in effect, underwriting an insurance risk. The consequences of a state insurance regulator determining that a medical practice is operating as an insurance company can be severe.

Senator Colbeck’s bill is intended to avoid such problems in Michigan. The bill provides, in part, as follows:

(1) A medical retainer agreement is not insurance and is not subject to this act. Entering into a medical retainer agreement is not the business of insurance and is not subject to this act.
(2) A health care provider or agent of a health care provider is not required to obtain a certificate of authority or license under this act to market, sell, or offer to sell a medical retainer agreement.
(3) To be considered a medical retainer agreement for the purposes of this section, the agreement must meet all of the following requirements:

(a) Be in writing.
(b) Be signed by the health care provider or agent of the health care provider and the individual patient or his or her legal representative.
(c) Allow either party to terminate the agreement on written notice to the other party.
(d) Describe the specific routine health care services that are included in the agreement.
(e) Specify the fee for the agreement.
(f) Specify the period of time under the agreement.
(g) Prominently state in writing that the agreement is not health insurance.
(h) Prohibit the health care provider, but not the patient, from billing an insurer or other third party payer for the services provided under the agreement.

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medical-doctor-1314902-m.jpgA well-intended objective of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is to improve patient access to doctors. Sometimes this objective is artfully stated as “better” access to care, rather than “increased” access to care, perhaps to acknowledge the reality that as more patients become insured via the ACA, there may actually be less access to physicians. “Better” access may therefore be an argument that, even as an existing physician shortage worsens, new alternatives under the ACA nonetheless improve access to care for the population as a whole. For sure, millions of Americans have enrolled in new insurance coverage via the ACA health insurance exchanges. In any event, whether it will be easier for most Americans to actually see a doctor remains to be seen according to a recent national survey.

The survey, by The Physicians Foundation, concluded that patients are likely to face increased difficulties in finding true access to care if current health care reform trends continue. More than 20,000 doctors nationwide were surveyed by the Foundation, and its findings are detailed and compelling. Among other things, the survey indicates that: 81 percent of doctors believe they are over-extended or at full capacity; only 19 percent of doctors think they have time to see additional patients; and 44 percent of doctors are now planning steps that would reduce patient access to their services (e.g., cutting back on patients seen, retiring, going part-time, closing their practice).
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doctor-patient-relationship-673855-m.jpgThe strain of health care reform and third-party-payer bureaucracy will likely continue to push physicians towards non-traditional business models for practicing medicine. This is especially true for non-specialists. As the trend of physicians to find viable practice model alternatives grows, it is widely expected that the number of direct pay and concierge physician practices will increase significantly.

Atlanta Medical Practice and Health Care Law Firm

Our health care law practice is particularly interested in direct pay and concierge medicine legal issues. While the particulars may vary, the typical concepts upon which such medical practices are built are fixed, affordable fees for patient “membership” in the direct pay/concierge program, 24/7 access to a physician, much more time and involvement in the physician-patient relationship, better preventive care and planning, and a more rewarding professional life for the physician without (or with reduced) headaches of a third party payer medical practice.

The legal and business issues raised by setting up such a practice, however, are important and must be carefully evaluated. For example, one such issue is whether the details of a particular direct pay or concierge model violate Medicare billing rules. The federal laws that govern Medicare patients and federal reimbursement can make it very risky for concierge practices to charge Medicare beneficiaries retainer fees for certain medical services. Medicare billing rules have heavy consequences for double billing of a Medicare covered procedure. The setup of the concierge practice model has the potential to trigger this issue, and some practitioners may be better off opting out of Medicare entirely. However, physicians also have the option of accepting or not accepting assignment, with their choice affecting who they bill for their services. Physicians accepting assignment will bill Medicare directly, while those not accepting assignment bill the patient, who in turn seeks reimbursement from Medicare.
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calculator-stethoscope-1004851-m.jpgMore than ever, physician innovation is needed in business models for medical practices to deal with problems associated with our cumbersome third party payer healthcare system. Our Atlanta health care law firm supports direct pay practice medicine as a positive trend. Many doctors are now setting up direct pay (a/k/a “concierge”) medical practices. This practice model in its purest form eliminates third party payers, and the patient-“member” of the concierge plan pays a fixed, prepaid fee for a menu of physician services that typically offer the patient greater access to the doctor. Varying hybrid concierge models exist that include some limited use of insurance plans. Direct Pay practices will likely continue to emerge and flourish as doctors seek smart business alternatives to deliver care in spite of a challenging regulatory and third-party payer healthcare environment.

For patients, belonging to a concierge practice usually means more access to and time with a doctor who really gets to know them and increasingly with flexible, affordable financial options to suit individual needs. For doctors, direct pay practice models can offer handsome compensation and desired relief from the medical hamster wheel of having to see a patient every six minutes to make reimbursement numbers work, with all the red tape and other burdens that attend having to spend too much time dealing with insurance companies. So what is the downside to a direct pay practice?

There are many legal and business issues unique to health care that confine doctors in how they set up a medical practice. These issues must be carefully evaluated to ensure medical compliance and avoid unpleasant business issues down the road. Although policy makers have not created direct restrictions prohibiting the concierge practice model, for those physicians who want to start or convert to this model, many legal considerations warrant caution and special care in setting up the business. Medicare presents a strong example. Doctors that accept Medicare reimbursement can either accept assignment and bill Medicare directly for their services or seek payment from the patient (who, in turn, seeks reimbursement from Medicare). Physicians can execute “participation agreements” with Medicare and receive greater reimbursement (5%). However, Medicare participating doctors cannot charge more than what is allowed by the Medicare fee schedules. Non-participating doctors who do not accept assignment cannot charge more than 115% of applicable amounts in the Medicare fee schedules. Violations of Medicare assignment rules can be prosecuted under the federal False Claims act.
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medical-equipment-1342025-m.jpgThe Affordable Care Act (ACA), widely known as “Obamacare,” will create new opportunities for primary care doctors (and some specialists) who weigh starting or converting to a direct primary care model. At first blush direct care medicine practices, also known as “concierge,” “boutique” and “retainer-based” practices, which charge patients a monthly or annual membership fee and tend to exclude (or limit) third party payer involvement (one of the strong points for pursuing the model), would seem limited as an opportunity by the ACA’s objective of getting everyone “insured.” But the opposite may prove to be the case. Actually, the ACA may drive a strong need for new concierge medicine doctors.

A New Era of High Deductibles

While a stated goal of the ACA is to decrease the number of uninsured Americans, a consequence of the ACA will likely be that many newly insured patients under plans obtained via the new insurance exchanges will soon realize that due to very high deductibles, much or all of the costs of treatment (i.e., all non-preventive care) incurred over the course of a year must be paid out of pocket by the insured. For a typical household in Richmond County, Georgia, for example, as of this writing there are 18 plans available via the exchanges: 7 “Bronze Plans,” 6 “Silver Plans,” 4 “Gold Plans,” and 1 “Platinum Plan.” For the Bronze Plans, the annual deductibles range from $4,000 to $6,300. It is widely expected that most people will seek to minimize their premiums and opt for one of the Bronze Plans, only two of which have annual deductibles of less than $5,000.

What will that mean? That will mean most doctor visits (excluding preventive care) will be paid out of pocket by the “insured” patients who presently may not realize what is in store for them by way of doctor bills. As the public becomes aware of how the ACA will actually work for them (i.e., even though they are “insured” they are writing checks for doctor bills), the appeal to consumers of concierge options will increase. As recently reported in the Wall Street Journal, “People with deductibles of $5,000 or more should think about how many times a year they typically see the doctor and for what, keeping in mind that annual checkups are free under the ACA. If doctor visits typically cost $150 and the patient has six appointments a year, a concierge practice offering the same services for $40 or $50 a month might be cheaper.” Pros and Cons of Concierge Medicine (November 1, 2013).
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untitled-1259095-m.jpgMany doctors feel the involvement of an insurance company or other third party payer in the practice of medicine is a source of headaches for their medical practice. Nothing on the horizon seems to indicate that red tape, administrative burdens, and an arbitrary manner by which some insurers and other payers decide when and how claims get paid will abate. There seems to be no chance that a third party payer’s involvement in the practice of medicine will make rendering patient care better and easier. So what should doctors do to make a happy living providing care? How can patients afford and get the care and attention they need to protect their health?

The inevitable choice for many primary care doctors (and patients) is direct primary care, or “concierge” medicine. The driver of this model is obvious: no more insurance company (or, at least, a lot less third party payer involvement in medical practice). For consumers, concierge plans are no longer just for the wealthy, but are affordable for most individuals and families. For a direct monthly fee, often less than a cell phone bill, “members” get personalized, ready access to a doctor who can take the time to get to know them and help them stay healthy. Primary care physicians will see concierge medicine grow as an opportunity in coming years, particularly with the unavoidable commotion and difficulties the Affordable Care Act (ACA) will cause all providers and patients as myriad struggles in ACA implementation unfold.

Primary care doctors that get serious about evaluating a concierge business model will also realize, however, that this business model presents particular legal pitfalls that must be carefully dealt with to ensure the viability of the business over the long term. Some potential issues to be considered and addressed, for example, concern:

– the unlicensed practice of medicine in states where the “treating” doctor does not have a license (if, for example, the doctor is consulting by email with a patient who has moved his residence)

– compliance with HIPAA privacy and security rules in a practice that relies more heavily upon electronic communications Continue reading

1047190_instrument_collection.jpgThe concierge practice of medicine is the wave of the future. This is very good news for the American consumer and tax payer.

As the price tag for Medicare has increased, so has the pressure on federal lawmakers to do something to avoid the looming fiscal disaster that attends rising health care costs. Since the U.S. Taxpayer demands that Medicare costs somehow be contained while, ironically, the U.S. Voter (same person, different hat) views Medicare as a sacrosanct entitlement to consume health care, the lawmaker “solution” has thus far focused the cost-cutting pressure on the supply side of health care, including cutting physician reimbursement. See, e.g. The Plea for Repeal of the Medicare Sustainable Growth Rate, May 4, 2013 post, this Blog. The trend of private insurers and other non-government payers is to follow what Medicare does (at least with respect to setting physician reimbursement rates and billing rules). An unintended consequence of the downward pressure on physician reimbursement together with modern health care’s increasing red tape/regulation and associated costs and headaches has been to drive primary care physicians out of private practice altogether. They are fed up. Many doctors have found (or are looking for) hospital employment. Others have retired. This trend has been referred to as the “silent exodus” of physicians and threatens to profoundly impact patient access care in a negative way. See National Survey Points to a “Silent Exodus” of Physicians, Merritt Hawkins, September 24, 2012.

Thankfully, some physicians are discovering that the concierge practice of medicine can be a smart, rewarding way to own and operate a private medical practice as a business that, rather than suffering the severe strains of the third-party-payer model, is free to actually focus on practicing medicine. For many doctors, the concierge medical practice model is returning private practice to its correct state — a real practice of medicine, medical judgment and care that is patient focused and free from the intrusion into the business of rendering care that a commercial or governmental third-party payer necessarily creates.
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