TONY REID H&R Staff Writer
DECATUR, IL | January 04, 2015 – Having your doctor on speed dial and knowing they are available 24/7 is the prescription for peace of mind.
That’s the diagnosis of businesswoman Nicole Ropp, a patient for the last six months with a new kind of Decatur medical practice, Priority Health Family Medicine. Instead of the usual insurance-based fee-for-service model, Priority Health charges its patients a membership fee that buys them 365-day access to their doctor.
The practice has been up and healing for 14 months and is run by two physicians and business partners, Dr. Kristin Newcome and Dr. Timothy Miller. They claim their patients love it, and they’ll get no argument from Ropp, who lives in Decatur and runs TenderLeaf Natural Products offering bath and body goods.
“I’ve had Dr. Newcome meet me out at their office at 7 a.m on a Saturday,” said Ropp, 31, who had some post-surgery concerns at the time. “Anyone else would be faced with having to go to the emergency room, and you don’t want to pay to do that unless you think you’re going to have a real emergency. But it’s so nice when you can have your own doctor look at you and say, ‘You’re going to be OK’ or, ‘No, you need to go to the ER.’”
Ropp has young children, too, and said the peace of mind that comes from being able to chat or even email your doctor for advice whenever you have a concern is soothing medicine for parents.
“You don’t have to call an office and explain everything to the receptionist and then everything to the nurse and then, if the doctor calls you back, they usually say you have to come in,” Ropp added.
“Now, I just call and talk to the doctor, and we go from there.”
Similar medical businesses are springing up all over the country, where this style of practice is known as “concierge medicine.”
But Miller says some of those other practices have additional fees, and Priority Health doesn’t.
“One fee with us covers pretty much everything,” explained Miller, pointing out that office visits, EKGs, pregnancy tests, blood pressure checks, well-child exams and school physicals are all included.
“We also do home visits, nursing home visits, and we see our patients when they are in the hospital,” Newcome added.
So, what does membership cost?
Fees range from $110 monthly for one person or $165 for a couple, to $1,200 annually for one person or $1,800 for a couple. A family of four pays $220 a month or $2,400 for a year; in all cases, the yearly fees paid in advance reflect a 9 percent discount, and there is a 4.5 percent discount for fees paid in advance every six months. Patients will still need regular health insurance to cover treatment by specialists and hospitalizations.
But for the regular aches, infections, stomach bugs, maladies, checkups and physicals of everyday life, Priority Health is there. Patients, of course, have to get used to the notion of paying for a service before they use it, and one they might not use for weeks or months. Newcome says you have to contrast that, however, with the high deductibles and co-pays on many insurance plans, which can have patients paying hundreds or thousands of dollars out of pocket when they do need care.
Miller says compared to that, paying Priority Health $1,200 a year doesn’t seem so bad, and it encourages patients to seek preventative care.
“You know you can see us whenever you need to, and we have very low-cost labs (testing), and we have access to other low-cost testing, too,” he added. “I think we can definitely be a money-saver for a lot of people. It just makes sense.”
Stepping out into a whole new way of delivering health care was a bold move for the doctors, who used to work as family practitioners in a conventional fee-for-service practice. They grew unhappy and frustrated with the mounting tangle of insurance red tape and felt their blood pressure rising under the constant demand to see more patients, faster.
To escape, they opted out. They sought a business model that would allow them to make a decent living from a practice where they could limit the number of patients and so manage their time per patient. This allows them, they say, to practice medicine their way, which means taking as long as you need to deal with whoever is sitting on your exam table.
“Priority Health has absolutely improved the quantity and the quality of the time we spend with our patients,” Newcome said. “And it’s removed a lot of the time we spent on paperwork and red tape.”
The doctors patient care package means one of them must be available whenever a patient calls, and Miller says he came into the office on Thanksgiving Day to treat a patient coming down with an upper respiratory infection. And in the last year, he has come in on three occasions to meet with and sew up weekend warriors who have gashed different bits of themselves open with chain saws and knives.
It begins to sound as if the doctors can never count on having a day off, but both insist that, thanks to limited patient numbers, the on-call demands are more than manageable. They even say patients are very shy of calling them outside of regular hours, even though they are encouraged to do so.
“People are respectful our time,” Miller said.
Their style of medicine is attracting a lot of attention, and both doctors have been guests at medical conferences and at the Southern Illinois School of Medicine, where they get lots of questions.
Newcome said their way of doing medicine is still new nationwide but growing fast.
“I think the numbers are around 5,000 practitioners currently operating, with an increase of about 30 percent over the time frame of the last one to two years,” she added.
One criticism of practices such as Priority Health is that, as the doctors limit the number of patients on their books, there is less health care to go around for everybody else.
But Newcome believes that making the art of medicine attractive to physicians by allowing them the freedom to do their jobs properly will make family practice a more appealing career choice to med school graduates.
“And there is definitely a need for a lot more primary care physicians,” she said.
Two patients anxious to retain her as their primary health care physician are husband and wife F. Jack Kenny and Joan Kenny, who live in Decatur.
They followed the doctor over from her former practice, and while they weren’t quite sure what to expect at first, they now say they have got the best of both worlds: a good doctor who cares and has the time to talk and listen and really understand what’s going on with their health care.
The Kennys have been Priority Health members for more than a year and have renewed their membership.
“So the proof of the pudding is right there,” said F. Jack Kenny, 81. “If we weren’t happy, we wouldn’t be doing it a second time.”
He says you don’t feel like “you’re on a production line” at the practice, and when he leaves, he gets a printed list of what medication he needs, when he needs to take it and what if any follow-up visits are needed.
“At my age, I want that kind of information,” Kenny said.
Priority Health’s list of friends and clients is growing, and it recently added its first business client, which makes the service available to workers as an employee benefit.
In fact, the medicine business is going so well – the practice is up to about 85 percent of its patient capacity – that the doctors have not ruled out expanding their reach by adding a third physician. But in the meantime, they say they are coping well with a small office support staff as long as the twin physicians manage to avoid coming down with the same bug on the same day.
“Oh, we can get sick,” Miller said. “But it’s much better if we both don’t get sick at the same time.”