On April 28, 2011, the Department of Health and Human Services posted a notice in the Federal Register seeking public comment on a proposal for “mystery shoppers” to contact doctors’ offices to try to figure out why so many new patients are having problems obtaining a primary care physician.
On Monday afternoon, the American Medical Association official came out against the proposed survey, with AMA Immediate Past-President Cecil B. Wilson, M.D. saying, “We know there is a physician shortage in this country that will only grow worse as more people enter Medicare and coverage is expanded to those currently uninsured. The government should be working to address this shortage so all patients can have access to the health care they need, rather than using mystery shoppers to tell us what we already know.”
Assuming the White House signs off on the proposal, the operation would have more than four thousand mystery shoppers contact 465 physician’s offices in nine selected states “in order to accurately gauge availability of Primary Care Physicians (PCPs) accepting new patients, assess the timeliness of services from PCPs, and gain insight into the precise reasons that PCP availability is lacking,” the Federal Register notice said. Each physician would be called by a (fake) prospective patient with private insurance, by one with public insurance, and by someone saying he or she is conducting a study.
“It's important to point out that this is a proposal,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said today. “There will be public hearings. It hasn't happened yet. We will look at this and decide after comment from all quarters about moving forward.”
Carney also pointed out that previous administrations had conducted similar “mystery shopper” operations, including a 2007-2008 secret shopper survey by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services that looked for any problems that existed with insurance companies offering the Medicare prescription drug benefit. In 2004, the Government Accountability Office used secret shoppers to look at Medicare's help line, 800-MEDICARE. The GAO survey indicated that almost 30% of the answers given to callers were incorrect.
Plans for this new survey were first reported by Robert Pear of the New York Times, who quoted a number of physicians who objected to the proposals including Olympia, Washington, family physician Dr. Stephen Albrecht, who said: “If federal officials are worried about access to care, they could help us. They don’t have to spy on us.”
Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., who is a physician in addition to chairing the House Republican Policy Committee, also objected to the proposal, saying, “doctors should be able to spend their time focusing on providing the highest level of quality care to their patients, not wondering when Uncle Sam might be calling to spy on them. This type of outrageous action sows yet another level of distrust between government and the people it serves, and it does nothing to address the underlying issue of access to care.”
Another take – from Fox Nation – reads: “Liberals Want to Spy on Doctors but Not Terrorists.”
A White House official, speaking not for attribution, said that there is no intent to collect individual information about any of the physicians.