Feds To Use Mystery Shoppers To Investigate State Of Health Care

Looks like our research-relishing relatives at Consumer Reports aren’t the only ones using mystery shoppers to help with their investigations. A new report says the federal government is bringing on a team of undercover operatives to see how hard it is just to get an appointment with a doctor.

Assuming the entire health care reform bill isn’t submarined in the coming months, around 30 million additional Americans will have access to health insurance, which could further strain what the administration says is an increasing shortage of primary care physicians.

Additionally, many more Americans will be eligible for Medicaid. Unfortunately, many doctors have stopped accepting Medicaid because the program reimburses doctors significantly less compared to private insurance.

Thus, the mystery shopper study will focus on both the difficulty of getting an appointment with a doctor in a timely manner and whether or not doctors are giving priority to patients with private insurance over those with publicly funded plans.

From the NY Times:

According to government documents obtained from Obama administration officials, the mystery shoppers will call medical practices and ask if doctors are accepting new patients and, if so, how long the wait would be. The government is eager to know whether doctors give different answers to callers depending on whether they have public insurance, like Medicaid, or private insurance, like Blue Cross and Blue Shield.

Surveyors will call the offices of a total of 4,185 doctors, including pediatricians and OB/GYNs across nine states: Florida, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia. Each office will be receive two undercover calls — one from someone saying he has private insurance, the second from someone claiming to have public insurance.

Reasons for scheduling appointments include everything from “I’m coughing up green, bloody mucus,” to annual checkups for physicals for school athletes.

While many doctors expressed feelings from anger to outrage to borderline paranoia in response to the news, the Times reports that the data in the survey will be anonymous: “Reports will present aggregate data, and individuals will not be identified.”

So why not survey patients about their experiences with doctors? Researchers tell the Times that patients memories of how long they had to wait to see the doctor could be mistaken or tainted by their feelings about that particular doctor.

U.S. Plans Stealth Survey on Access to Doctors [NY Times]

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.