Nearly 2,400 Carroll members of the state's largest health maintenance organization found a surprise in their mailbox earlier this month -- their family doctor was being changed.
Because Carroll Primary Care Associates servered its ties with the Columbia FreeState Health System several weeks ago, patients of the Washington Road facility must choose another of the HMO's Carroll County doctors.
"Carroll Primary Care had become closed to new Columbia Freestate members," said David Wolf, the HMO's president. "They were no longer interested in participating with us. So we had to develop alternatives for those patients."
Since Dec. 1, Columbia FreeState patients at Carroll Primary Care have had to choose another family doctor fromamong the HMO's 27-physician network in the county.
But to help pick up the bulk of displaced patients, Columbia FreeState opened a new medical facility in the Boulevard Exchange on Route 140.
The 3,600-square-foot Westminster Medical Center is owned and operated by the HMO, but is staffed by a private practitioner whose patient base will eventually be made up of mostly HMO members.
Sharon Alongi, 43,a doctor who has been practicing for more than 20 years, is the primary physician at the center. She did her residency work at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and also has worked at the Johns Hopkins University. The West Virginia native has had a varied career that began with nursing. Working at the center marks her first full-time family oriented practice.
"This new center offers high-qualitycare and the convenience of having many medical services under one roof," Wolf said. Working with Alongi are Edward Perl, the center's director of pediatric care, and Ellis Mez, director of adult medicine. Both are longtime Carroll practitioners.
With the new center, Columbia FreeState changed its roster of county-based specialists.
"About 90 percent of that network will remain in place," Wolf said. "We are working to minimize disruption to ongoing treatment."
Wolf said that all currently authorized specialized care, prescriptions, medical treatments and programs will continue until those services are complete.
For example, Wolf said, women who are expecting a child will not be forced to change their gynecologist.
He also said that the HMO's pharmacy network will remain intact.
Carroll Primary CareAssociates would not disclose how many Columbia FreeState members have transferred their medical services to other doctors.
"We simplydeclined to renew the contract, that's all," said Jodi Sutherland, the organization's office manager. "They took care of it all."
For patients affected by the change, the HMO offered them a chance to choose their new doctor. If no choice was made, their medical records were transferred to either the Boulevard Exchange center or to HMO's Eldersburg Health Center on Liberty Road.
While the change effects only about 2,400 of the HMO's 12,500 Carroll members, a letter explaining the change went out to most of those members.
To at least one of the 27 physicians who are remaining with Columbia FreeState, the mass mailing has caused some confusion.
"I am not sure of the purpose of the letter, except that it was probably to allay fears about the change," said Norman Goldstein, a physician who practices on Washington Boulevard. "Some of my patients have expressed concern and confusion. I am still participating with Columbia FreeState."
His contract with the HMO runs through January. He said that he expects to continue with the organization.
In addition to the doctors at CarrollPrimary Care Associates, Vimala Naganna also has severed ties with the HMO; the doctor's Columbia patients have been reassigned or given the chance to choose a new doctor.
Columbia FreeState Health System is part of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Maryland HMO network. Members with questions about the changes can call (410) 683-0062.