Planning a visit to the doctor this month?
Take a number.
Forget the image of physicians jetting off to the slopes of Aspen for the holidays. Most doctors across Southern California are knee-deep in patients, not powder, as their busiest month of the year gets into full swing.
With their health insurance deductibles mostly paid up and the new year approaching, patients are crowding doctors' offices from Woodland Hills to Beverly Hills to take care of everything from physicals to tummy tucks to wart removals.
"It's crazy," said Toby Hutcheson, office manager for Westwood plastic surgeon Dr. Mark Labowe. Labowe has surgeries booked for eight days straight. "Every year, from right after Thanksgiving through New Year's, we're busy."
A big part of the annual rush is that most patients have met their annual deductible payments--which can range from $500 to $2,000--and are eager to let their insurance companies foot a little more of the bill before the new year begins and a new deductible obligation kicks in.
"Historically, we have a tremendous increase in our costs at the end of the year," said David Helwig, senior vice president for consumer services at Blue Cross of California. Helwig said the number of claims his company processes during the final quarter of the year is 15% to 25% higher than the claims billed in other quarters.
Those year-end claims are part of the reason, Helwig said, that Blue Cross is doing away with deductibles for many of its policies, replacing them with flat-rate co-payments and burden sharing.
But as deductibles increase at many companies, several doctors' offices said December's lines are getting longer every year.
"I've been here a little over eight years and it's getting worse every year," said Carol Ann Satterthwaite, office manager for Dr. Leonard Springer, a Northridge dermatologist.
Helwig said most of those visits are for nonemergency treatments. The number of hospital stays remains generally the same from month to month, he said, with December showing marked increases in elective procedures, such as bunion removal or hernia treatment.
"It's generally things you take care of when you have the time," Helwig said. But as office manager Hutcheson observed, it's "human nature to put things off until the last dying moment."
American Medical Assn. spokesman Arnold Miller said the organization does not keep records documenting the year-end rush, but noted that anecdotal evidence suggests it's more commonly felt by specialists such as dermatologists and plastic surgeons rather than general practitioners.
But at the general practice of Dr. Abilio Ramos in Thousand Oaks, a harried receptionist said between phone calls that no one was free to talk about the rush because they were too busy dealing with it.
At dermatologist Springer's office, 20 patients were scheduled in a single afternoon. At ear, nose and throat specialist Dr. Jerome Vener's office in West Hills, 18 patients were packed into Wednesday afternoon.
"His day usually starts about 7 a.m., and he gets home about 9:30 p.m.," said Vener's medical assistant, Jerri Robinson.
"At the end of every year, people want to get in and see the doctor, and they all have to have surgery before the end of the year."