Docs See December Rush in Patients

This winter, Dr. Eric Larson of Seattle saw a surge in patients seeking medical care. On some days, half of his patients came in wanting to be seen "urgently" before Dec. 31.

"In one case it was a guy in early middle age who had been advised to make certain he saw his doctor in 2008 because the business -- a car dealership selling only one to two cars per month since September -- might not be in business (soon)," said Larson.

Larson later heard that the car dealership sent his patient a letter saying it was staying in business for now, but cutting health care coverage on Jan. 31.

"I'm going to care for this guy on e-mail," said Larson, who is also a researcher/epidemiologist at the Group Health Center for Health Studies in Seattle. "I wouldn't be surprised if I don't see him in person unless he ends up in the ER."

Family care doctors across the country have shared similar stories of a winter rush to the doctor's office. Reasons range from economic worries, insurance deadlines and last ditch efforts to make good on 2008 promises.

In Cleveland, Miss., Dr. Scott Nelson has seen his busiest December on record.

"I had noticed earlier in the year a drop in patient volume, as many people would come to the office and leave when they could not afford to pay their deductible," said Nelson. "I assumed it was a local problem here in the impoverished Mississippi Delta."

But come December, the number of office visits in Nelson's practice shot up by 15 to 20 percent.

"Many patients have frankly told me they are here to get checkups before their new deductible starts," said Nelson.

Insurance deductibles are the maximum out-of-pocket costs patients are expected to pay each year before their health insurance starts to pay for procedures.

According to a survey by the private consultant group Mercer, the average U.S. patient has a $1,000 deductible for procedures and tests each year. That's up from an average of $500 in 2007.

"Clearly, more companies are choosing plans with higher deductibles to save on spiraling health insurance costs," said Nelson.

Hitting a Health Insurance Deductible

Doctors find that once people hit their deductibles, they want to get their money's worth in insurance coverage at the end of the year.

"The main driver is cost," said Dr. Randy Wexler, an assistant professor of family medicine at Ohio Sate University in Columbus. "If somebody has a high deductible ... then planning is not the issue -- where they are in their deductible is."

According to Wexler, many patients with health savings accounts, or who have flex savings accounts, are also fighting to get non-deductible coverage at the year's end.

"Since many plans have very high deductibles in the thousands of dollars, it is sometimes not possible to hit the annual max until near the end of the year,"said Wexler.

However, other doctors have seen the opposite effect from insurance premiums and economic turmoil this December. In some practices, patients who haven't hit their deductible are delaying treatment until January to hedge their bets on hitting their deductible in 2009.

"We have actually been seeing less patients in the past few weeks," said Dr. Gil Holland of Phoenix, Ariz.

Holland said many of his elderly patients who winter in Arizona may have stayed home this year to cut costs in the bad economy.

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