Class-action suit filed against ABIM over MOC


A group of internists is suing the American Board of Internal Medicine over its maintenance of certification (MOC) process, alleging that the board is monopolizing the MOC market.

Set of scales with American flag in the background jsmith/iStockphoto

The lawsuit, filed Dec. 6 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. The plaintiffs seek damages and injunctive relief, plus lawsuit and attorney costs arising from ABIM’s alleged antitrust violations.

In a statement, ABIM expressed disappointment at the lawsuit and said the organization will vigorously defend itself, adding that doing so will “consume resources far better dedicated to continuous improvement of its programs.”

ABIM declined to answer questions addressing specific accusations from the lawsuit. However, in an interview, ABIM President Richard Baron, MD, said that “ABIM board-certified physicians have taken the initiative to distinguish themselves. This is a credential that physicians earn. We offer certified physicians the opportunity to demonstrate to the medical community, their peers, and the public that they are current and have special expertise.”

ABIM has not yet filed a formal response to the lawsuit, which was due by Jan. 6. Court documents show that in January, ABIM entered the appearances of four attorneys that will represent the board in the case. From there, discovery and evidence gathering in the case will begin.

Katherine Murray Leisure, MD, an infectious disease specialist based in Plymouth, Mass., is one of the plaintiffs. While she said that she could not comment specifically on the lawsuit, she has written publicly about her ABIM concerns in the past.

In a 2015 letter to Dr. Baron and posted on an anti-MOC website, Dr. Murray outlined a litany of complaints against ABIM’s MOC process and called on the U.S. Congress to investigate ABIM’s financial, legal, and ethical conduct.

“[The American Board of Medical Specialties] and ABIM collected more than $10,000 in fees and lost practice hours every decade from each [diplomate] doing MOC,” Dr. Murray Leisure wrote. “MOC took weeks away from our offices, clinics, patients, families, specialty societies, and individual research. ABMS MOC removed hundreds, perhaps thousands … of America’s best, once board-certified physicians from full hospital careers and earnings whenever [diplomates] did not complete these high-stakes MOC programs. … The righteous and fast solution to such moral, ethical, scientific, and constitutional problems is to end MOC now.”

Plaintiffs Glen Dela Cruz Manalo, MD; Alexa Joshua, MD; and Gerard Kenney, MD, did not return messages seeking comment. When contacted, attorneys for the plaintiffs declined to comment.

The doctors’ 32-page lawsuit characterizes ABIM as an organization motivated by money that has made its MOC process increasingly more burdensome for physicians over the years without evidence that MOC has any beneficial impact on doctors, patients, or the public. Complying with ABIM’s MOC costs internists an average of $23,607 in financial cost and time lost over 10 years, and costs up to $40,495 for some specialists, according to the suit.

The physicians allege that ABIM controls in excess of 95% of the market for MOC of internists, in violation of federal antitrust laws, and that the organization has unlawfully obtained and maintained monopoly power for MOC services.

The board’s illegal tying of its initial certification to its MOC results in burdensome conditions, including “raising the cost of the practice of medicine, constraining the supply of internists thereby harming competition, decreasing the supply of certified internists, and increasing the cost of medical services to patients and consumers,” the suit claims.

The legal challenge details how MOC has personally and professionally impacted each of the four plaintiffs. Dr. Manalo, a gastroenterologist, lost his privileges at St. Vincent Healthcare in Billings, Mont., and was subsequently terminated after he declined to maintain his ABIM certification as a gastroenterologist. In a letter to ABIM, Dr. Manalo wrote that it was “unfair and outright discriminatory that practitioners certified on or after 1990 are the only ones required to certify,” according to the lawsuit. Dr. Manalo later took a position as staff gastroenterologist at Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Walla Walla, Wash., at a substantially reduced salary. He became unemployed in 2017.

Dr. Murray Leisure obtained an initial and lifelong board certification in internal medicine from ABIM in 1984 and an infectious disease certification in 1990. ABlM terminated Dr. Murray’s infectious diseases certification after she failed her MOC examination in 2009, which led to lost privileges at Jordan Hospital in Plymouth, Mass. The loss caused significant damage to Dr. Murray, including lost income, a tarnished reputation, and the lost opportunity to help patients, according to the lawsuit. Jordan Hospital restored her privileges after Dr. Murray passed her MOC examination in 2012.

Dr. Kenney lost a job opportunity with Mount Nittany Physicians Group in State College, Pa., after he declined to renew his ABIM certification in gastroenterology. He is currently a physician with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in Seneca, Pa.

That the ABIM website lists him as “not certified,” is misleading, and makes it appear that his initial certifications were revoked due to failure to pass a MOC examination or misconduct, rather than because the certifications lapsed, according to the suit. The description makes Dr. Kenney appear less qualified to patients, hospitals, insurance companies, medical corporations, other employers, and others, he claims.

Dr. Joshua could not renew her consulting and admitting privileges at Detroit Medical Center after she failed an MOC examination in 2014 and became uncertified in internal medicine, according to the suit. In addition, Blue Cross Blue Shield informed Dr. Joshua it would no longer cover her because it required ABIM certification for coverage. She unsuccessfully appealed based on her certification with the National Board of Physicians and Surgeons. As a result of her certification termination, Dr. Joshua can only practice outpatient medicine at Detroit Medical Center.

In an interview, Dr. Baron emphasized the number of modifications made to its MOC process in recent years after responding 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, he 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.

Dr. Richard J. Baron

Dr. Richard J. Baron

“We take all suggestions from physicians seriously, and have used it to launch many new initiatives including: the Knowledge Check-In, a new Physician Portal, partnerships to give physicians dual credit for CME and MOC, and exploration of alternative assessment models with medical societies,” he said.

Dr. Baron acknowledged past criticism of the MOC process, but said he is proud of the work ABIM has done to address physician concerns about the choice, relevance, and convenience of its MOC program.

*This story was updated on Feb. 6, 2019.

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