Doctor Self-Referrals Part of Health-Care Cost Trend

Via Dean Baker, who had two good things to say about Washington Post articles today. Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

Doctor Self-Referrals Part of Health-Care Cost Trend

Doctors Reap Benefits By Doing Own Tests
By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 31, 2009

In August 2005, doctors at Urological Associates, a medical practice on the Iowa-Illinois border, ordered nine CT scans for patients covered by Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield insurance. In September that year, they ordered eight. But then the numbers rose steeply. The urologists ordered 35 scans in October, 41 in November and 55 in December. Within seven months, they were ordering scans at a rate that had climbed more than 700 percent.

The increase came in the months after the urologists bought their own CT scanner, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post. Instead of referring patients to radiologists, the doctors started conducting their own imaging — and drawing insurance reimbursements for each of those patients.

In focusing on health-care reform this year, President Obama pledged that a revamped system would hold down exploding costs. But none of the players — Congress, the administration or the array of interests involved in the process — has offered a clear path to that goal. And efforts to control medical practices that have driven up expenses, including physician “self-referrals,” underscore how difficult it is to alter entrenched patterns.

A host of studies and reports by academics and the federal government shows that physicians who own scanners order many more scans than those who do not. As a result, Americans pay billions of dollars in extra taxes and insurance premiums.

Government panels have found that, across several areas of medicine, ordering more procedures does not improve health outcomes. In the case of medical scans, unnecessary imaging also creates a health risk — as many as 1 percent of all cancers in the United States appear to be caused by radiation from medical imaging, according to Amy Berrington de Gonzalez, a radiation epidemiologist at the National Cancer Institute.

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