May 5, 2000

Kaiser's Prescribing Policy Leads To Lawsuit, Ethics Concerns

One of the nationís best-known HMOs has ignited a furor by requiring psychiatrists at one of its California facilities to write prescriptions for patients they have never seen.

Kaiser Permanenteís policy for psychiatrists in its San Diego area facilities stipulates that when they receive a request for a prescription for a patient that a staff psychologist, social worker, or family therapist is seeing, they are to comply with the request and write the prescription without scheduling a visit with the patient.

Widespread publicity about the policy, which was the focus of an April 13 Los Angeles Times article, has generated heated responses from psychiatrists and others concerned about how such a policy could seriously compromise patient care and put psychiatrists in ethical jeopardy.

The article revealed that a state agency was investigating this practice and that a psychiatrist who lost his job after refusing to follow the policy was suing Kaiser Permanente.

The day after the article appeared, APA issued a press release strongly condemning the policy as an example of "unethical" medical practice.

In that statement APA President-elect Daniel Borenstein, M.D., a private practitioner in Los Angeles, said it is "unethical and substandard practice for a psychiatrist to prescribe medication for a patient without personally examining that patient and determining the necessity for medication."

He emphasized that Kaiser Permanenteís practice "trivializes mental illness and the special medical skills of psychiatrists in diagnosing and treating it."

APAís press release cites two paragraphs of its ethics code that may be violated by Kaiserís prescribing policy. One states, "When the psychiatrist assumes a collaborative or supervisory role with another mental health worker, he/she must expend sufficient time to assure that proper care is given. It is contrary to the interests of the patient and to patient care if he/she allows himself/herself to be used as a figurehead."

Another relevant paragraph says that in relationships between psychiatrists and psychologists, "The physician should not delegate to the psychologist or, in fact, to any nonmedical person, any matter requiring the exercise of professional medical judgment."

Psychiatrist Fired

The San Diego psychiatrist who filed suit against Kaiser, Thomas Jensen, M.D., wants the court to step in and order the HMO to stop the practice, which he contends violates state law about prescribing and dispensing drugs. Kaiser fired Jensen in December after he refused to prescribe medications for HMO patients he had never seen.

Dennis Cook, M.D., coordinating chief of psychiatrists for Kaiserís Southern California division, is quoted by the Times as saying that Jensen was well aware of the policy when he was hired. In his suit, Jensen said that on his first day on the job, he received medication requests from social workers, social work interns, and marriage and family therapists.

"I was astounded that this was happening," Jensen said. "I was trained that you donít prescribe medicines for patients youíve never seen." He said he had seen drug recommendations from nonphysicians that if prescribed would have jeopardized patientsí health.

Oliver Goldsmith, M.D., medical director and chair of the board of Southern California Permanente Medical Group, said in an April 20 press release that contrary to reports, Kaiser does not have an official policy of requiring psychiatrists to prescribe without seeing the patient. He said psychiatrists in the medical group developed a "multidisciplinay team-based approach" in which "psychiatrists in San Diego work very closely on a regular basis with other mental health professionals in a group practice. It is a physician-designed and physician-driven approach in which physicians exercise their medical judgment and authority in rendering care."

Joel Hyatt, M.D., assistant associate medical director for the Southern California Permanente Medical Group, said that "all decisions to examine the patient or to prescribe medication are made by physicians."

In defending the policy, Cook stated that he believes "itís very ethical." He noted that all of its psychiatrists are informed of and agree to the prescription policy before they are hired. He explained that Kaiser psychiatrists can refuse to follow through on a prescription request from a nonphysician therapist if they believe that medication is not appropriate for a particular patient. If medication is likely to benefit the patient, however, they are obligated to prescribe one.

While psychiatrists may be well informed about the policy, as Cook said, there is a serious question about how well informed patients are.

Sam Muszynski, director of the APA Office of Healthcare Systems and Financing, raised the issue of whether patients are getting any meaningful informed consent when their medication information comes from nonphysicians. "It is hard to believe," he said, that psychologists, social workers, and other therapists can describe the wide range of side effects for which patients need to be alert or can diagnose symptoms that may be the result of interactions with other drugs with anywhere near the degree of competency that a physician can provide.

Kaiser did acknowledge after the suit was filed that it is aware that its prescribing standards differ from those used by other treatment facilities in the region. Cook told the Times that the policy allows psychiatrists to see more patients by eliminating the need for them to conduct duplicate interviews for patients who have already been assessed by a nonphysician therapist. He also called the attacks "self-serving" since, he said, they come from private practitioners who stand to gain from additional office visits if Kaiser is forced to alter its policy.

Comments About Policy

The president of the San Diego Psychiatric Society (SDPS), Kenneth Khoury, M.D., does not see any benefit for patients or physicians in the policy. The policy clearly fails to meet the standard of care in the community, he told Psychiatric News, and "exceeds the boundaries" of what goes into providing "quality care and safe care." There is no room for negotiation on this issue, he noted. He said that the district branch has asked the Medical Board of California to clarify its understanding "that the standards of care and state law say that physicians must conduct face-to-face interviews" with patients before they write prescriptions for them.

Khoury has also asked Michael Newhouse, M.D., chair of the SDPS Ethics Committee, to "review the concerns" raised about possible ethical violations and report his findings to the SDPS Council. He said that 15 San Diego psychiatrists work for that areaís Kaiser Permanente group, of whom three are members of the district branch.

Yvonne Ferguson, M.D., president of the California Psychiatric Association (CPA), said she was "shocked to learn that Kaiser, which enjoys a good reputation in California, had such a policy." She suggested that the controversy "will bring the whole scope-of-practice issue into bold relief," adding that psychiatrists "cannot shrink from confronting this issue. Also, legislators will have to look at [scope of practice], and the public will have to be educated about implications of Kaiserís policy."

The suit also charges Kaiser and the Southern California Permanente Medical Group with violating consumer protection laws by engaging in deceptive advertising, such as touting that at its HMOs "physicians alone manage all aspects of care" and that "medical decisions are made by physicians in consultation with their patients, not by health plan administrators. . .no third party comes between medical decisions."

Jensen, who moved from Maine to work for Kaiser, now teaches part time in the psychiatry department at the University of California at San Diego. Explaining why he chose to go the legal route, he commented, "As a physician I was required not only to refuse to [prescribe without seeing the patients], but to do what I could to end the practice because it endangered patients."

Kaiser is the nationís largest not-for-profit HMO and has 8 million subscribers.óK.H.

[Thomas S. Jensen, M.D., v. Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, et al.; case no. 825090-6]