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The Press Democrat

Kaiser Permanente officials, who came under fire last weekend for limiting patient access to doctors in the late 1990s, said Tuesday they have worked to remove any barriers and have made it easier for patients to see their physicians quickly.

Kaiser officials cite patient satisfaction surveys that give high marks to the health maintenance organization and statistics that show more Kaiser members are seeing their primary care physicians regularly.

The health care provider was in the spotlight last weekend when the Los Angeles Times published internal memos from doctors, including two in Santa Rosa, who complained the HMO was trying to control costs by making it difficult for patients to see their doctors.

The memos were discovered as part of a 1999 lawsuit filed by the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a consumer advocacy group, against all Kaiser operations in California. The suit, pending in San Francisco Superior Court, alleged patient access problems existed in the entire Kaiser system.

Tom Debley, spokesman in Kaiser‘s Northern California division headquarters in Oakland, said the e-mails were part of a vigorous, internal debate among physicians about improving patient access.

“The Kaiser model of patient accessibility was designed and developed by physicians and they redesigned it,” Debley said.

Since opening its hospital on Bicentennial Way in 1990, Kaiser has become Sonoma County’s largest HMO by doubling its membership to more than 120,000 members who are served by about 200 doctors.

The lawsuit challenged Kaiser to substantiate a 1998 advertising campaign that its patients are better served because its doctors were immune from the financial pressures of managed care.

Carl Campbell, public relations officer for Santa Rosa, said the news reports about the lawsuit were closely circulated in Sonoma County because they included electronic mail from a Santa Rosa family physician and a specialist in internal medicine.

However, Campbell and Debley said the Kaiser practices that the lawsuit said kept patients from securing quick appointments had been altered over the past couple of years chiefly because of opposition from physicians.

Debley said practices at the Santa Rosa hospital and its two medical offices were no different than at other Kaiser facilities.

“There never was a policy to restrict patient access, but we did have practices that doctors felt made it difficult for patients to get appointments,” Debley said.

Dr. Bob Schultz, medical director of Kaiser‘s Santa Rosa facility, said a major accomplishment for the local facility has been an increase in patient access to their own primary care doctors. Four years ago, 49 percent of Santa Rosa Kaiser members had personal physicians and today, 90 percent do, he said.

Kaiser officials also said they feel patient satisfaction is improving because Kaiser does well in surveys by several independent organizations that rate HMO preferences among consumers. They include the National Committee for Quality Assurance, a national watchdog group; the Pacific Business Group on Health, which negotiates health insurance for Bay Area companies including several in Sonoma County; and the U.C. Berkeley School of Public Health.

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