Every year, thousands of people make a deal with their doctor: I'll pay you a fixed annual fee, whether or not I need your services, and in return you'll see me the day I call, remember who I am and what ails me, and give me your undivided attention.
But this arrangement potentially poses a big threat to Medicare and to the new world of medical care envisioned under President Barack Obama's health overhaul.
The spread of "concierge medicine," where doctors limit their practice to patients who pay a fee of about $1,500 a year, could drive a wedge among the insured. Eventually, people unable to afford the retainer might find themselves stuck on a lower tier, facing less time with doctors and longer waits.
Concierge doctors say they're not out to exclude anyone, but are trying to recapture the personal connection shredded by modern medicine. Instead of juggling 2,000 or more patients, they can concentrate on a few hundred, stressing prevention and acting as advocates with specialists and hospitals.
"I don't have to be looking at patient mix and how many are booked per hour," said Dr. Lewis Weiner, a primary care physician in Providence, R.I., who's been in a concierge practice since 2005.
"I get to know the individual," Weiner said. "I see their color. I see their moods. I pick up changes in their lives, new stressors that I would not have found as easily before. It's been a very positive shift."
If 500 patients pay $1,500 apiece, that's gross revenue of $750,000 for the practice. Many concierge doctors also bill Medicare and private insurance for services not covered by their retainer.
Patients and family members say the fee is worth it.
The cornerstone is an intensive annual physical focused on prevention. About half the patients are Medicare beneficiaries.
Retainer fees range from $1,500 to $1,800 a year, and MDVIP collects $500 of that for legal, regulatory and other support services.