Lawsuit against ABIM draws $200,000 in donation support


More than $200,000 has been raised by doctors and their supporters nationwide through a GoFundMe campaign launched to pay for costs associated with the class-action lawsuit against the American Board of Internal Medicine over its maintenance of certification (MOC) program.

Chicago-based cardiologist Wes Fisher, MD, and fellow physicians with the Practicing Physicians of America (PPA), started the fundraising campaign in May 2018 with an initial $150,000 goal to pay for attorney and prelitigation costs, according to posts on Dr. Fisher’s blog. After reaching that goal in September 2018, four internists filed suit against ABIM over its MOC process in December 2018, alleging antitrust claims.

Dr. Brian Dixon , pediatric psychiatrist, Forth Worth, TX

Dr. Brian Dixon

PPA has since raised the GoFundMe goal to $400,000 to help support the next phase of the litigation, according to the campaign page.

In an email to supporters, Dr. Fisher said donations will help “take down MOC and end the unproven and burdensome continuous certification requirements for all subspecialties nationwide.” Dr. Fisher declined to comment for this article.

Brian Dixon, MD, a pediatric psychiatrist and PPA board member based in Fort Worth, Tex., said the campaign page and its success speaks for itself.

“Physicians are hurting and want to restore physician autonomy,” Dr. Dixon said in an interview. “Most physicians are pretty fiscally thoughtful so their donations are a powerful statement that they want change to the MOC process.”

Richard J. Baron, MD, ABIM president declined to specifically address the GoFundMe campaign, but said in an interview that the board is proud of its credential and grateful to the many physicians that have helped inform changes ABIM has made to its programs.

Dr. Richard J. Baron

Dr. Richard J. Baron

“Valuable credentials with standards behind them gain market share because they are meaningful and say something important about the doctors who hold them,” Dr. Baron said in an interview. “There is evidence in peer-reviewed journals that doctors holding our credential are more likely to meet quality metrics throughout their careers [Ann Intern Med. 2018 Jul 17. doi: 10.7326/M16-2643], that they are more likely to order mammograms for women who need them [Womens Health Issues. 2018 Jan-Feb. doi: 10.1016/j.whi.2017.10.003], that they provide care of equivalent quality at lower total cost[JAMA. 2014 Dec 10. doi: 10.1001/jama.2014.12716], and that they actually earn higher salaries [Health Serv Res. 2013 Jun. doi: 10.1111/1475-6773.12011]. All doctors should be concerned if making evidence-based claims about our credential based on data published in peer-reviewed journals gives rise to litigation alleging fraud.”

The lawsuit against ABIM, filed Dec. 6, 2018, in Pennsylvania district court, claims that ABIM is charging inflated monopoly prices for maintaining certification, that the organization is forcing physicians to purchase MOC, and that ABIM is inducing employers and others to require ABIM certification. The four plaintiff-physicians are asking a judge to find ABIM in violation of federal antitrust law and to bar the board from continuing its MOC process. The suit is filed as a class action on behalf of all internists and subspecialists required by ABIM to purchase MOC to maintain their ABIM certifications.

On Jan. 23 of this year the legal challenge was amended to include racketeering and unjust enrichment claims. The suit alleges that in violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act, ABIM has deceived the public, including hospitals and insurance companies, into believing that its MOC credential benefits physicians, patients, and the public and that it constitutes self-regulation by internists and subspecialists. The challenge also asserts that ABIM has charged inappropriate, unreasonable, and unlawful MOC-related fees that result in the board becoming unjustly enriched at the expense of plaintiffs and other class members. The plaintiffs seek damages and injunctive relief, plus lawsuit and attorney costs.

ABIM has not yet responded to the lawsuit. In an interview, Dr. Baron said that the board will “have an opportunity to respond fully and completely in court in March and to [share] our side of the story.”

The lawsuit’s GoFundMe campaign has garnered more than 750 donations with sums ranging from $15 to $7,400. The average contribution is $210, according to an update on the funding website by Dr. Fisher, who serves as treasurer for Practicing Physicians of America.

PPA, the group behind the lawsuit – although not a named plaintiff – started in 2017 and focuses on strengthening physician autonomy, improving patient safety, and decreasing physician burnout, according to its website.

“Our current focus is beating burnout and empowering physicians to reclaim the leadership mantle in medicine and health care,” Dr. Dixon said. “By sharing the PPA ‘Seal of Approval’, we are inspiring physicians of all backgrounds to speak up and be heard. Ultimately, PPA wants to be a stable ‘stage’ for every physician’s voice that supports patient safety and physician autonomy.”

Dr. Niran Al-Agba of Silverdale, Wash

Dr. Niran Al-Agba

The organization, which is free to join, does not yet have concrete membership numbers, according to PPA’s secretary, Niran Al-Agba, MD, a Silverdale, Wash.–based pediatrician. Dr. Al-Agba referred to PPA as a resistance movement that is still building its infrastructure and recruiting members.

“We’re a work in progress,” she said in an interview. “The more people that know about us, the more people will join us.”

A central focus of the organization is ending MOC, according to the PPA website. Dr. Al-Agba said the current MOC process for physicians is burdensome and does not better medical practice. Dr. Al-Agba said her own personal experience with MOC has been negative, particularly a test she took in 2012 as part of the American Board of Pediatrics’ Maintenance of Certification program.

At the time, Dr. Al-Agba was nursing her young baby and was denied a request to take the 6-hour test at a later date. She had to bring her pumping equipment with her to take the test and faced inconsideration and humiliation when she needed a private place to pump at the test facility, said Dr. Al-Agba, who ultimately passed the test.

Dr. Al-Agba who blogs about being a mother and a doctor, wrote an open letter to the American Board of Pediatrics about her experience in 2016. She called the experience “demoralizing.” In general, she believes MOC is more about memorization and regurgitation, rather than education for physicians.

“What I want to see is a system that makes sense,” she said. “I want to see my learning tied to benefiting patients, as opposed to [MOC] which is showing you can still pass tests in medicine about esoteric facts.”

As a direct care physician, Dr. Dixon does not contract with insurance companies so MOC has little impact on his practice, he said. However, within a few years, he stands to lose an assistant professorship because the university requires board certification to stay in the position.

“As a business award winner, I bring a unique perspective to mental health care, and it would be a shame to be blacklisted from teaching the next generation of physician entrepreneurs because of the MOC process,” he said. “MOC is redundant and unnecessary so my hope is that it completely disappears. In the event ABIM and [the American Board of Medical Specialties] aren’t interested in making the right choice and making MOC optional, I’d like for medical schools, hospitals, and insurance companies to voluntarily disregard this useless designation to evaluate physicians. Great physicians are automatically lifelong learners and we’re committed to our patients.”

ABIM has made a number of modifications to its MOC process in recent years in response to physician concerns. This includes an overhaul of the organization’s governance structure to include more than 200 practicing physicians and opening new avenues for physicians to engage in the creation of assessment content that more closely reflects what they see in practice, Dr. Baron said. In addition, ABIM now surveys all specialists to contribute to the exam blueprint review and the creation of the new Item Writing Task Force.

In a December 2018 blog post, ABIM leaders said the organization would vigorously defend itself against the legal challenge, and that the board’s focus will “remain on maintaining a standard of professional achievement that the public values, signaling that ABIM diplomates are well-trained and staying current in their fields to better serve their patients.”

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