Doctors Hear Many Questions About Health Law

4.19.2010

Regardless of how you feel about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (H.R. 3590), even the most fevered Obama supporter has to give him and the Dems major penalties for either refusing or neglecting to tell the American people what was in the bill and how it would effect their lives over the coming years.

The hysteria, confusion and demagoguery surrounding the highly questionable and clandestine approval of this bill is to be laid solely at their feet.

Dr. Roger W. Evans, a cardiologist in Wichita, Kan., is used to answering patients’ questions about their hearts. But lately, he said, he has spent half his time answering a succession of different questions — about the health care law.

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Donald Moore, 75, one of those patients, expressed his uneasiness about the law recently: “The fact is that I don’t understand it, and no one else I talk to understands it. Every day, you read something different in the paper.”

Mr. Moore’s latest concern was a “rumor that the new health care procedures are going to be monitored and managed by the I.R.S.”

“That’s a turnoff right there,” he said. “How much is true, how much is fiction, out here no one knows.”

Most of the health care law, which President Obama signed last month, has yet to take effect, but for many doctors it is already having an impact.

“We’ve had to add an hour or two to the day because patients want to talk about it,” said Dr. Evans, who travels around the state and said questions often left him scratching his head. “I see 30 to 50 patients in a day, and it is the subject of conversation more than half the time.”

After months of public wrangling and brinkmanship in Washington, the nation’s doctors now find themselves having to answer questions about a 2,400-page law that many do not understand themselves, and which they may have opposed. “Not only is the public confused, but so are our members,” said Dr. Lori J. Heim, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, which supported the bill. “There’s been a lot of misinformation out in the media. We’ve been trying to get to them simple answers — what does this mean for my practice, what does it mean for my patients, what does it mean for the future?”

Some doctors said their patients were pushing for surgery now, for fear that it will not be covered in the future or that they will end up on a waiting list. “It’s ludicrous to be coerced to perform surgery because of fear of noncoverage in the future,” said Dr. Eustaquio O. Abay II, a neurosurgeon in Wichita. “I refuse.”

Dr. Abay said he had tried to read the law, but gave up because it was all legal jargon to him. “They think we have all the answers, but we don’t,” he said of patients.

While many doctors say they are not besieged, the queries have been particularly robust in states where the plan was unpopular, Dr. Heim said.

Joseph R. Baker III, president of the Medicare Rights Center, a nonprofit organization that operates a hot line for patients with questions, characterized the volume of calls about the bill as moderate. But he said the level of confusion was high, comparable to that created when Medicare added prescription drug coverage in 2004.

Often, Mr. Baker said, callers have been getting their information from media commentators or doctors who opposed the legislation. “They’re being told by their providers, ‘Now I won’t be able to take Medicare patients,’ ” he said.

“People call us confused, panicked, anxious,” he said. “And in most instances, we say there are some benefits in the short term, like closing the doughnut hole,” as the gap in Medicare prescription drug coverage is known, “and that the things that might have a negative impact, like lower reimbursement to providers, will happen over a number of years. Usually that calms people down.”

The questions do not always reflect the actual provisions of the law. The major changes for this year, including coverage on their parents’ policies for adult children under age 26, rarely come up, said Dr. Melissa Gerdes, a family practitioner in Whitehouse, Tex., who said it was not unusual for her patients to discuss politics in the examining room. She said that only one patient had asked about the new law’s provisions on the doughnut hole, and that she could not recall any patient who had inquired about coverage for adult children.

“The big one I get is, ‘Are you going to be able to keep seeing me?’ ” Dr. Gerdes said. (She tells them she will.)

At Dr. Alieta Eck’s free clinic in Somerset, N.J., where all the doctors donate their time, Dr. Eck said many of her patients were excited about the new program. “People say, ‘I can’t wait for Obamacare,’ ” said Dr. Eck, who has been outspoken in her opposition to the program. “They’re already getting free care.”

Dr. Eck said that her office had not been overrun with questions about the bill, but that during visits at her paid practice, “most patients are fearing that everything’s going to cost them more.”

For many doctors, the big frustration comes when they do not know what to say to their patients.

“Quite honestly, I don’t know how to answer their concerns,” said Dr. Deborah A. Sutcliffe, a solo practitioner in Red Bluff, Calif. “Sometimes they’re more informed than I am, sometimes they’re not. I haven’t read the damn thing.”

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