Recently, more and more health insurance providers are moving toward a system where signing up for care means being assigned a primary care provider (general physician) until you choose to change that physician to someone else.
The trouble is (and I’ve found this on more than one occasion) many of the lists these primary care providers (or PCPs for short) are coming from are outdated. These lists on record often contain the names of physicians that no longer work for the hospitals and clinics found on the list, or they are no longer accepting new patients.
Yesterday I found myself in something of a pickle. My medicaid plan (signed up for near the end of the affordable care act enrollment time) assigned me a sub plan automatically (until I chose another) which also assigned me a primary care doctor that didn’t exist.
What’s worse is that when I tried to fix this (and pick another plan under medicaid) I found out it wouldn’t kick in until May, leaving me a window through April with a wonky plan and no doctor.
Fifteen minutes of tears and a panic attack later, I made an attempt to find a new primary care physician under the plan I was stuck with, only to have the plans’ customer service people assign me a second, non existent doctor.
The point of this story, to me, is pretty clear. Relying on someone in a cubicle and a phone to choose my doctor for me is ridiculous. Trying to pick a doctor out of a list of names also seems ludicrous, after all… how do I even know which ones are good?
In a blog about mental health, you might be wondering just how important general physicians are anyway… but there are many reasons having a good primary care doctor can work in your favor.
Primary physicians can be the gateway to mental health treatment. I know several people who are prescribed mental health medications by a primary physician (though I’ve had terrible luck with that myself). On top of that, many insurance plans require a primary physician to refer (basically give you an “in” and a stamp of approval for mental health treatment to your insurance provider) you to mental health specialists before you can get treatment.
Primary physicians are often a gateway to all realms of physical health. If your insurance doesn’t require a referral for mental health services, it is much more common to require referrals to all other specialists, including anything from dermatology to neurology to allergy specialists. Doing what we can to help our minds is only half the battle, we need to be able to take care of our bodies as well. This might even include a primary physician helping counteract physical side effects of psychiatric medications, something that has been super important in my own search for better health!
Yes, these people are important, but when being assigned phantom PCPs, how do we find good doctors accepting new clients who also take my insurance??
My advice is not to start too small. Start by looking for locations that generally accept your insurance. You can do this by doing a search online at your insurance provider’s website (usually, you might have to google the addresses you find to see the actual locations), or you can call your insurance customer service line (though I’m warning you, this can be a huge headache). Something that worked for me was calling the office of my phantom PCP (via a number on my new insurance card) and finding out there were several (real) doctors there that do take my insurance.
I find that if you need to choose between calling insurance people or calling clinics, you will often get much more help from the clinic receptionists. As long as you try to remain calm and friendly, they can usually point you in the right direction.
We have several hospital systems in Seattle, so finding out what hospital system takes the health insurance in question can also help you find primary care doctors and specialists in your area. I called my usual hospital (who didn’t take my new insurance) but found out another hospital down the road who does.
Don’t underestimate the knowledge of friends, family, or co-workers who have the same insurance as you. If you know someone on your plan who claims they have a great doctor, ask for their information! This rings true for not only primary care doctors, but psychiatrists, therapists, and any other specialist you might be interested in seeing.
Once you’ve found out if a location (or if doctors at a given location) take your insurance, you can call and ask the receptionist if anyone is accepting new clients. I’ve met some really wonderful receptionists who have even gone so far as to give me brief descriptions of the available doctors dispositions!
Writing down the name of the doctor (with correct spelling), the phone number of the location, and the address is important. Once you have this information, you can go back to the insurance website or customer service line and request a change of primary care physician.
This last step is IMPORTANT, because if you don’t follow through with the choice that you’ve made your insurance company can potentially deny your claim (aka not pay for it) if the doctor you see doesn’t match the doctor listed in their database.
Some insurance companies will allow you to change this information on their website, while others have an automated phone system. On occasion you might need to speak to a customer service representative (who may also put you on hold to call the clinic you just talked to and verify the information). In any case, once you have finished the process you can expect to receive a new ID card in the mail with your new (and correct) PCP information listed.
I realize this is a lot of information, and I know nobody likes insurance nonsense, but finding and selecting a primary care physician before attempting to interact with insurance representatives can save you a lot of hassle. I know it would have saved me a panic attack, and three hours of yesterday’s morning!