Persons who appeal Medicare claims involving doctor bills will have the right to insist on a face-to-face hearing with an administrative law judge and will not be required to make the appeal by telephone, program administrator William L. Roper said yesterday.

"Telephone hearings will be strictly optional and voluntary," Roper told a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing headed by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.).

"Had you made it clear from the outset that phone hearings would be voluntary" there would not have been a "storm" of criticism, said Frank. He cited an internal Department of Health and Human Services document and news reports suggesting that Roper, in drawing up plans to grant an appeal right mandated by Congress in 1986, was considering requiring appeals to be handled by telephone. Roper said he previously had not made a decision on whether to make use of telephone appeals optional or mandatory.

In 1986, Congress directed that a person who disputes a Medicare benefit ruling involving the so-called Part B of the program -- the part that covers doctor bills and certain other items -- would be entitled to a hearing before an administrative law judge if $500 or more was involved. An administrative law judge is a hearing officer employed by the government.

Medicare, in tentative plans, decided to hire 42 administrative law judges of its own, instead of using those working for the Social Security Administration, and to conduct as many as possible of the hearings by telephone conference calls.

Roper said the decision to have Medicare hire administrative judges was based on language in the House report on the 1986 provision, declaring, " . . . it is the committee's expectation that {HHS} will give serious attention to establishing a separate office of hearings and appeals for {Medicare} or otherwise creating a group of hearing officers devoted exclusively or predominantly to Medicare appeals."

Roper said the idea of using telephone hearings arose because about 70 percent of the anticipated 17,000 annual appeals were expected to come from doctors and suppliers, not patients, and that a number of insurance companies administering Medicare claims already used phone hearings successfully in various similar disputes.

"In addition, over half the state {welfare} agencies provide optional telephone hearings" on welfare matters, he said.

However, Sally Hart Wilson of the National Senior Citizens Law Center said the "proposed in-house ALJs {administrative law judges} will lack the independence" needed for fair assessments and "long-distance telephone conference calls can never allow for adequate presentation of the evidence."

The plan was criticized on similar grounds by Massachusetts Attorney General James M. Shannon, a former member of Congress; Melford Cleveland, vice president of the HHS Association of Administrative Law Judges, Althea T. Simmons of the NAACP, and others.