By Phil Galewitz
Kaiser Health News, February 25, 2020
For five years, Rasha Salama has taken her two children to Dr. Inas Wassef, a pediatrician a few blocks from her home in this blue-collar town across the bay from New York City.
Salama likes the doctor because Wassef speaks her native language — Arabic — and has office hours at convenient times for children.
“She knows my kids, answers the phone, is open on Saturdays and is everything for me,” she said.
But UnitedHealthcare is dropping Wassef — and hundreds of other doctors in its central and northern New Jersey Medicaid physician network. The move is forcing thousands of low-income patients such as Salama to forsake longtime physicians.
Across the nation, business and contractual disputes are separating patients from longtime doctors. This often occurs when doctors don’t want to accept the rates insurers are willing to pay. It sometimes occurs when insurers’ business plans require having a narrower network of doctors — doctors whose practice patterns may be easier to control.
But in this case, the cause of the exclusion goes to even deeper business connections: Wassef and other doctors say the insurer appears to be trying to shift patients to Riverside Medical Group, a 20-office physicians’ practice owned by Optum, a sister company of UnitedHealthcare, both of which are subsidiaries of UnitedHealth Group. UnitedHealthcare is essentially forcing patients to transfer to doctors it controls, the doctors allege.
Indeed, several patients said the health plan directed them to Riverside when informing them their doctors were being dropped.
Lawrence Downs, CEO of the Medical Society of New Jersey, said he estimates UnitedHealthcare is trying to remove hundreds of doctors in central and northern New Jersey from its network. That is the same area where Riverside Medical operates, he noted.
“It seems like they are steering patients away from small, community-based doctors to large groups that they own,” he said.
But further complicating matters, many Medicaid and Medicare managed-care programs are contracted out to private, for-profit insurers such as UnitedHealthcare. They are looking to create returns for shareholders. With surging enrollment in government programs, UnitedHealthcare has enjoyed rising profits and a stock price that has soared tenfold since 2010.
UnitedHealthcare gained millions of new customers after the Affordable Care Act led New Jersey and 35 other states and the District of Columbia to expand Medicaid and states turned to private insurers to handle the business.
The company operates New Jersey’s second-largest Medicaid health plan, with 418,000 members. (The state Department of Human Services has blocked UnitedHealthcare from enrolling any additional Medicaid members, a severe and rare penalty. That move — which is not related to the termination of doctors’ contracts — stems from complaints related to care management and discharge planning, the health plan’s call center and other issues.)
By Don McCanne, M.D.
Who is in charge of preserving the sanctity of the physician-patient relationship? The private insurers? No, they are in charge of the flow of funds. Under their business model the physician-patient relationship is expendable.
Think of that the next time that someone tells you that we don’t want Medicare for All because we’ll lose the right to have private insurance. (Be sure to read the last paragraph excerpted above to understand the ethical plane on which these insurers operate.)
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