Overbilling not 'professional disease,' says doctors' group

The new president of the New Brunswick Medical Society says some physicians could be overbilling the provincial government, but contends there shouldn't be a blanket condemnation of the profession.

"It's possible. I don't deny that," said Dr. Robert Desjardins, an anesthesiologist in Bathurst, who now represents doctors across the province. "Would you say there are no lawyers that are dishonest? No, I don't think so.

"Everything is possible and we are very open to that possibility. But it's not a professional disease," he stressed.

Desjardins was responding to recent comments by Health Minister Ted Flemming about the medicare audit process and cracking down on physicians who double bill.

The department recently added more auditors.

If there are doctors who overcharge, Desjardins agrees they should be exposed.

But the process has to be transparent and there has to be proof, he said. He doesn't want to see a witch hunt.

"Seeing our members being accused of things arbitrarily is certainly not pleasant. So why is there such a smear, I don't know."

Instead of just blaming doctors, the health minister should be taking a look at updating the antiquated billing system, said Desjardins.

The medicare fee schedule is 253 pages long, very complex and often subject to interpretation, he said.

In a statement issued late Thursday afternoon, the minister said he recently met with representatives of the Medical Society and "reiterated [his] view that the vast majority of our province's physicians follow the rules and bill properly."

"However, given that medicare is funded through tax dollars, it is important that we respond to the concerns expressed by the auditor general and ensure that the rules, regulations and policies are being well-communicated and followed in fairness to both the physicians and the medicare system," Flemming said.

The province's auditor general found some doctors are overbilling medicare without facing any penalties.

Sixteen doctors were paid more than $1 million in 2011, more than double the amount budgeted by the Department of Health for the average annual earnings of a specialist, Kim MacPherson stated in her 2012 report, released earlier this month.

In some cases, doctors double billed, charging both medicare and the province's WorkSafe NB for the same service, the province's chief financial watchdog said.

MacPherson recommended the department identify which doctors were billing medicare at a rate higher than the average of their specialty and then review those files “to determine reasonableness." She said if any issues were discovered, those doctors should be audited.

She also recommended the provincial government make the billing figures for doctors available to the public.

Flemming says individual physician income won't be published at this time. "Further work with the medical society and privacy commissioner is necessary before any consideration is given to publishing individual physician billing information," he said in the statement.

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