New Idaho doctors group practices independence

The organization says forgoing hospital employment provides choices for patients

adutton@idahostatesman.comFebruary 15, 2014 

  • THE ‘DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENTS’

    The Independent Doctors of Idaho group says its members believe patients should have:

    - A high degree of control over their medical care, including choices of physicians and medical facilities.

    - Choices in treatment decisions that are shaped by information, without potentially conflicting interests.

    - Knowledge of the most affordable and efficient options, as health care costs are often hidden or confusing.

When he moved to Idaho almost two years ago, Gary Walker, of Meridian, searched his health insurance network to find a primary care doctor. He picked one near his home — a doctor who worked under the umbrella of a local hospital.

Walker was perfectly happy with that physician, he said. But after comparing his medical bills in the Boise area to those in North Carolina and Maui, where he’d lived and vacationed, he started having second thoughts last fall.

“I got the feeling it was just about the money,” Walker said in a recent interview.

Walker talked about his options with a friend, Dr. Jeff Hessing. Hessing is an orthopedic surgeon and a co-owner of Treasure Valley Hospital, a surgical center in Boise and a plaintiff in a recent lawsuit over St. Luke’s Health System’s purchase of Idaho’s largest independent physician practice, Nampa’s Saltzer Medical Group.

Hessing also is a founding member of a new group, Independent Doctors of Idaho, or IDID. The group is about 3 months old and has 175 members, a large number of whom are in the Treasure Valley. (A similar alliance of 18 independent doctors formed in 2012 in the Magic Valley.)

“We just would like people to know, basically, that independent physicians are an option, that we’re out there,” said Dr. Vicki Wooll, a family physician who owns Eagle Creek Family Medicine and helps lead IDID. “Because we run our own businesses and are in charge of our own overhead, we are in control of costs — well, some costs, anyway.”

The group emerged from casual conversations that started about four years ago, Wooll said. The first meeting, about a year ago, was called in response to increasing consolidation of medical providers in Idaho. The founders also said “media (suggested) the only viable options in town are a hospital-employed group, and it just isn’t true,” she said.

Members are not required to refer to each other, she said. But Hessing said he expects there will be some referrals between members.

The referral pattern of doctors who join hospital systems was a major topic in the trial over the St. Luke’s purchase of Saltzer. Some testimony indicated that physicians employed by St. Luke’s tended to refer patients to other St. Luke’s physicians.

The $300 annual membership fee pays for advertising, administrative costs, events and a website, independentdocsid.com.

The group’s website and its “Declaration of Independents” say hospital employment can influence a doctor’s decisions about patient care and can present conflicts of interest. The group notes that independent doctors are free to set their own prices, and they cannot charge the facility fees that hospitals charge for services by hospital-employed doctors. Those fees, which can significantly increase the price of an office visit, are intended to cover the higher overhead of a hospital-owned practice versus a solo practice.

But the members also work with local hospital systems, even in leadership roles.

Wooll, who represents all Idaho doctors at the national level as an American Medical Association alternate delegate for the Idaho Medical Association, said the state has “some of the finest physicians in the country, and many are employed by local hospital systems.”

The Idaho Hospital Association said it does not yet know enough about the new group to comment on it. St. Luke’s and Saint Alphonsus health systems have said they value the role of independent doctors in the community.

The goal of IDID is to make sure that role doesn’t disappear, Wooll said.

“Many, but not all, physicians thrive in independent practice,” Wooll said in an email. “We want to see that we can remain a viable practice option for patients and for physicians. Competition is healthy for the economy, and this country stands for the freedom to be able to make choices.”

Audrey Dutton: 377-6448, Twitter: @IDS_Audrey

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