WASHINGTON -- House Speaker Newt Gingrich called yesterday for an unprecedented congressional investigation of the booming managed care industry, the fastest growing and perhaps most controversial sector in the nation's health care system.
Mr. Gingrich's unexpected call for hearings on a delivery system that now covers about 63 percent of all privately insured Americans was rousingly cheered by doctors, who increasingly are coming under the control of managed care networks.
But the speaker's remarks stunned the health insurance industry, which dominates managed care plans.
A public probe of the managed care industry and its practices by a GOP-controlled Congress may seem to fly in the face of the current Republican drive to broadly reduce the role of the federal government.
Mr. Gingrich's implicit criticism of managed care reflects the GOP's mixed feelings toward the industry and its reliance on "gatekeeper" physicians, a practice that limits consumer choice of medical providers.
Deficit hawks increasingly are eyeing managed care as a sure-fire way to cut costs -- not only in the private sector but also in the government's budget-busting Medicare and Medicaid programs. At the same time, managed care is coming under fire for being dominated by bean counters more concerned about the bottom line than the quality of individual patient care.
"[Republicans] are real skittish about the lack of choice in managed care," said one top GOP staff member. "But they also know they can't solve the Medicare and Medicaid cost issue without getting more beneficiaries into managed care."