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Doctors serve privileged for a price

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SEATTLE — If David Heerensperger isn't feeling well, he calls Dr. Howard Maron on the doctor's personal cell phone, no matter whether it's 3 a.m. on a weekday or noon on a weekend.

And Maron will happily make a house call to the 65-year-old executive or send a nurse to his patient's office for tests. And he'll guarantee same-day results.

The catch? Maron and his partner, Dr. I. Scott Hall, charge patients up to $20,000 a year — in cash — for the privilege of opting out of the overcrowded health-care system.

Maron compares his Seattle practice to private golf courses or expensive restaurants — perks, he says, that come with being wealthy.

It's a growing trend. Five years after opening his practice MD2 (pronounced MD-squared) in Seattle, Maron is planning to open as many as 100 franchises across the country. And an increasing number of doctors nationwide are beginning to charge anywhere from $1,500 to $20,000 to let wealthier patients opt out of the traditional health-care headaches.

Patients say they are spared the frustration of long waits for appointments, rushed, impersonal treatment and delayed lab results.

With traditional health care, Heerensperger says, "the prices are going up so much and the service is so bad, that this is just great."

"I'm fortunate to be able to pay for it," adds Heerensperger, who runs a chain of lighting stores.

Doctors say it gives them more free time, and lets them spend more time with patients without budget-conscious insurance companies looking over their shoulders.

Maron says he got the idea while traveling as the team doctor for the Seattle SuperSonics. He noticed the athletes got VIP care, while the rich team owners struggled with the frustrations of traditional health care.

"I thought, 'Isn't it ironic that a player can get a response like that, while the wealthy and the powerful have to sit in ER waiting rooms as if they are a nobody — or an everybody?' " Maron says.

Other medical professionals sympathize with the frustrations of the current health-care system, which, thanks to lowered insurance reimbursements, means that many doctors' salaries are decreasing as their patient load increases.

But they question whether most physicians would be comfortable practicing "concierge care" medicine.

"I don't think they're unethical, but I don't think they take into account the overall needs of the community," says Frank Riddick, a New Orleans physician and chairman of the American Medical Association's council on ethical and judicial affairs.

Critics, including patients dropped by doctors who switched to the new system, complain that such practices hurt those who can't afford it. In Florida, some politicians have even called for an end to such practices.

Duane Dobrowits, the CEO of MD2, is a former patient of Maron's who couldn't afford to switch to the $20,000-a-year model. He asks of critics, "Are you angry because doctors are doing this or are you angry because you can't have this?"

Maron says he's never run a charitable practice.

"None of these doctors is Mother Theresa," he says. "We're not saints. We're just practicing medicine."

At his peak, Maron says he was seeing 20 to 30 patients a day from a roster of 4,000. Now he has fewer than 100 patients and he may see one or two a day. Plus, his salary has increased considerably.

"It's allowed me to focus on being a doctor again," says Robert Colton, who left his private practice in Boca Raton, Fla., last year to start MDVIP, which charges $1,500 a year above regular insurance and per-visit fees to keep his patient load down to just 600.

"I can spend more time with patients," Colton says. "I can see them whenever they're ill."

MD2 has only primary care physicians. Specialists must be paid by the client's personal insurance, but Maron says they often give MD2 clients preferential treatment.

"It's a point of pride because our patients are a lot of the movers and shakers in the city," said Maron, who also accompanies his patients when they visit specialists.

William Dowling, chairman of the department of health services at the University of Washington's School of Public Health, says such practices are a natural product of the U.S. health-care system.