Community Health|February 21, 2012 7:00 AM

Medicare online: A frustrating way to find a doctor

Survey finds 38 percent error rate

In a search for general practice, internal medicine and family doctors throughout the state, Colorado Public News encountered an error-ridden database that often made locating doctors a pursuit in futility.

On the surface, the government’s official Medicare website looks helpful if you’re looking for a doctor.

A photograph of a smiling physician in a lab coat greets visitors, who are instructed to click a tab that says, “Facilities and Doctors.” Click another link to “Find a Doctor” – and you’ve arrived at Medicare’s search engine for physicians.

“What type of provider are you looking for?” the website asks. “What’s your ZIP code or city?”

That’s where the smile fades.

In a search for general practice, internal medicine and family doctors throughout the state, Colorado Public News encountered an error-ridden database that often made locating doctors a pursuit in futility.

The database lists thousands of doctors that Medicare administrators say accept patients on the government insurance plan for people older than 65, as well as certain disabled individuals.

Of 162 primary care physicians called, 62 of those contained erroneous or useless information.

Many of the numbers reached automated messages saying that the number had been disconnected or is no longer in use.

Other phone numbers were incorrect, including one that connected to a Pueblo couple’s home; there were no doctors in the house.

One phone number connected to a medical office where no one had heard of the doctor listed – at that phone number – on Medicare’s website.

In another case, a doctor’s phone number on Medicare.gov was listed as “(000) 000-0000.”

Yet another Colorado doctor listed on the website has been dead for about a year.

One effort to contact a listed doctor resulted in the call being routed to a clinic in southern Arizona – though the doctor was supposed to be in Wheat Ridge. One doctor from Hawaii somehow turned up in a Denver ZIP code. Another physician had moved from Grand Junction to Alaska.

The Medicare website failed to note one internal medicine doctor had recently closed his practice, and now only takes patients with certain illnesses.

Mike Fierberg, a regional spokesman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the government agency that oversees the website, said he would inquire within the agency about the issue. He also encouraged Colorado Public News to forward the mistakes found on the website, with a promise to correct them.

He said he did not immediately know why there were so many errors.

The calls were made as part of a survey of 100 Colorado family doctors listed on the site. The survey determined just one-third would accept a new patient on basic Medicare.

Meanwhile, some say Medicare patients should not rely on the Internet alone – even the government’s official website – to find doctors.

“Not everybody is computer literate to start with,” noted Carol Mesaros, a volunteer for RSVP, a nonprofit that helps seniors in the Grand Junction area. “Not everybody has a computer.”

Mesaros said seniors looking for help finding a doctor accepting Medicare patients should seek counseling or classes from nonprofits like RSVP, which administers the Senior Health Insurance Assistance Program for the state of Colorado.

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