Kirk asks Obama administration to reconsider 'stealth' doctor survey

In brief remarks on the Senate floor, Kirk called on his Senate colleagues to sign a letter he will present to Health and Human Services Secretary (HHS) Kathleen Sebelius. The letter asks for several details about the planned survey, including its costs to taxpayers and doctors, and calls on HHS to use already completed studies for information on this subject rather than conduct a new survey.

"At a time of serious fiscal constraint, we would urge you to focus our limited federal resources on ways to actually address these problems rather than spending taxpayer funds on studies regarding subjects already well covered in the literature," the letter says.

"I'm asking my colleagues to join in a letter to Secretary Sebelius sharing concern with the legality, standards and repercussions of this program," Kirk said on the floor.

"The cost in a proposed clandestine method of collecting information on physician offices is questionable, and therefore, I'm going to be requesting details on how this survey will be conducted, how investigators will be punished for any misconduct or extortion that they may carry out in their duties, and how patient and physician confidentiality will be maintained."

Kirk's letter is below:

Dear Secretary Sebelius,

We are writing regarding a program just revealed in the New York Times "U.S. Plans Stealth Survey on Access to Doctors" (June 26, 2011). We have deep concerns regarding the Department's recent plans for a "stealth survey," its legality, notification to Congress and lack of standards for any misconduct or bad reporting by the staff hired to carry out this work on American doctors and their practice of medicine. The cost and proposed clandestine method of collecting information from physician offices are questionable and, therefore, we request details of how this survey would be conducted, how investigators would be punished for misconduct or extortion and how patient/physician confidentiality would be maintained. In addition to full, public disclosure of the survey and its implementation, we would like further information on the following:

1) Since there are a number of surveys answering this question already, what does this addition of taxpayer spending add? Please provide detailed records of your literature review of the current published research on this subject before you launched this new taxpayer-funded spending program. Can you estimate this new project's total cost?

2) Please provide records of how the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) of Chicago, Illinois, won a federally competitive bid to carry out this work.

3) In concluding the results of the survey, how will the NORC decide what qualifies as acceptable responses or best practices from physicians they target?

4) How will patient and doctor confidentiality be maintained? If your researchers report bad information or use this survey for extortion, bribery or other bad acts, how will they be disciplined?

5) Once concluded, who will have access to this information? The Department? The White House? Congress? The Press?

6) By what criteria will individual physicians be targeted for participation? Will age, average incomes surrounding office locations or political affiliation be excluded from factors considered when targeting physicians?

7) Will federal employees carry out this work or will this be conducted by a contracted "call center" for data collection? Who is qualified to conduct the survey and how will they be chosen?

8) If your staff improperly releases patient/physician data, how will they be disciplined?

9) Please describe the FY11 Appropriations Committee program or account under which this work will be funded.

10) Please describe the statutory authorization used to carry out this work and please provide your Congressional Notification(s) informing the Committees of jurisdiction of your intent to obligate funds for such purpose.

11) Please provide the specific section of the President's budget under which this funding to conduct this work was requested.

12) If a physician wishes to correct data collected by NORC, what legal redress does he or she have?

There have been a number of reputable studies that confirmed many patients on Medicaid and Medicare cannot find a doctor to see them. Previous studies also confirmed we do not have enough doctors, particularly primary care doctors. Government programs often provide poor service and suffer from funding failures or corruption.

At a time of serious fiscal constraint, we would urge you to focus our limited federal resources on ways to actually address these problems rather than spending taxpayer funds on studies regarding subjects already well covered in the literature.

Sincerely,

Mark Kirk