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Primary care access survey canceled

New York Times / June 29, 2011

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WASHINGTON — The Obama administration said yesterday that it had shelved plans for a survey in which “mystery shoppers’’ posing as patients would call doctors’ offices to see how difficult it was to get appointments.

“We have determined that now is not the time to move forward with this research project,’’ the Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement yesterday.

The decision is an abrupt turnabout. Sunday night, officials at the health department and the White House defended the survey as a way to measure access to primary care, and they insisted that it posed no threat to anyone’s privacy.

Health policy experts have long expressed concern about a shortage of primary care doctors that could become more serious if, as President Obama hopes, more than 30 million people gain insurance coverage under the health care law passed last year.

Having coverage is not the same as having ready access to care — a fact demonstrated in Massachusetts, which has come closer than any other state to the goal of universal coverage. A recent survey by the Massachusetts Medical Society found that about half of family doctors and internists were not accepting new patients.

Plans for the federal survey were devised by the office of the assistant health secretary for planning and evaluation, Sherry A. Glied, and the government retained a big survey research company to help conduct it.

Administration officials concluded that the survey could be more of a political liability than it was worth. Doctors and many Republican lawmakers criticized the project.

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