A free consumer's directory to 635 Northern Virginia physicians -- what they charge, where they attended school, whether they prescribe generic drugs -- was released yesterday by that area's health planning council.
Compiled with $30,000 in federal and local funds, the book contains information on about 50 percent of the doctors who practice in Northern Virginia. Publication comes after a stormy court battle with the Virginia State Board of Medicine over the legality of participation by physicians in the project.
Copies of the directory are being distributed to social service agencies, Northern Virginia libraries, the physicians who provided information for the book and individuals and organizations who ask for it.
A free copy can be obtained as long as the 5,000 copies last by writing to Health Systems Agency of Northern Virginia, 7245 Arlington Blvd., Suite 300, Falls Church, Va., 22042.
At a press conference yesterday, the Health Systems Agency of Northern Virginia described its directory as the most comprehensive of its type in the nation. The guide, which neither rates nor compared the physicians, also could become a prototype for other regions of the country interested in compiling physician directories for their areas, officials said. There is nothing comparable in the District of Columbia or in Maryland.
Until now, the officials said, consumers seeking information had a choice of the Yellow Pages, medical association referrals, recommendations from friends and neighbors and two national physician directories available in the public library.
The Health Systems Agency officials said their guidebook moves beyond existing material and furnishes the public with "factual, unbiased and useful information about the health care system of Northern Virginia."
A typical entry in the book lists the physician's hours and locations, time allotted for routine office visits, availability and cost of parking, whether the office is near a bus stop, if the office is accessible to wheelchair patients, and what medical tests are available in the office and in the building complex.
The entry also may tell if the doctor prescribes drugs by their generic names (the equivalent drug but not a brand name), if the doctor or the staff speak any foreign languages and what mechanisms exist for handling inquiries by patients and billing complaints.
Another category lists the physician's education, certification and affiliations as well as standard fees, whether Medicare and Medicaid patients are accepted and if there is a charge for completing patient insurance forms.
Some doctors declined to list their fees. Others included their fees as of 1979, noting that they were subject to change.
Among the physicians who submitted a fee schedule for the directory was Dr. William L. Bekenstein, a Fairfax County pediatrician. His schedule includes complete blood count test, $10; pap smear, $10; throat culture, $10; urinalysis $5, and chest X-rays, $26.
Dr. Bekenstein's charges for those tests have not changed, his office bookkeeper said yesterday. His office visit fees have. The book lists a routine office visit, for example, as an $18 charge as of November 1979, but now the charge is $25, the bookkeeper said.
For the purpose of comparison, the fee schedules still may be useful in determining if one physician's fees generally are higher than another one in the same vicinity.
The questionnaire mailed to physicians was developed by an advisory group that included representatives from the Health Systems Agency, the Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, the Alexandria Office of Consumer Affairs and the medical societies of Arlington, Fairfax and Prince William counties.
A sample copy of the questionnaire is included in the directory's index.
Work on the questionnaire began after the agency's 1976 lawsuit against the state board of medicine. The board viewed the proposed directory at that time as a violation of Virginia law that forbade physicians from advertising their fees and services. As a result, physicians refused to participate in the project.
The lawsuit, filed by the health agency, the Virginia Citizens Consumer Council and Helen Savage, a consumer, charged that the Virginia law violated their First Amendment rights to gather, publish and receive information about physician services.
A three-judge U.S. court ruled in November 1976 that the Virginia law was unconstitutional. In doing so, the court rejected the state medical board's argument that information propsed for the directory could be obtained from other sources, that the state statute prevented unscrupulous physicians from publishing deceptive information and that truthful advertising could be confusing to the consumers.
Dr. Clarence B. Trower, a Norfolk physician who is president of the Virginia State Board of Medicine, said yesterday that he had not seen the new guidebook that his agency once oppposed and therefore he could not comment on its contents.
Dr. Herbert G. Hopwood, president of the Arlington Medical Society, offered another view.
"We all received the questionnaires from the Health Systems Agency and we told our member (that) we recommended they fill them out and mail them back," he said.
"We didn't include fees in our recommendation -- we left that up to the physician," he added. Dr. Hopwood said fees could change -- "just like The Washington Post subscription rates."
Hopwood took his own advice. He filled out the questionnaire and he is included in the book. His fees are not listed.