The Rittenhouse Women’s Wellness Center has been taking care of the medical needs of Center City women — and exclusively women — since its opening at 1632 Pine Street in 2008. Most of the women who went there loved it. And what’s not for a woman to love? An all-female staff. Same-day sick appointments. Quick callbacks from the doctors. But last week, the practice instituted a policy that has some women furious.
The office sent its patients a marketing e-mail blast, entitled “Membership Has Its Healthy Benefits.” What followed was an explanation of Rittenhouse Women’s Wellness Center’s new “membership based program” and a special offer inviting women to join for $99, a discount from the regular annual fee of $199. But hurry! The offer expires at the end of June!
The same day that the email was sent out, robocalls were also made, encouraging the women to sign up.
Women who became members would be “privileged” to same-day sick appointments, longer appointment times “with the promise of unhurried care,” and quick callbacks. Yes, the same things that the women were already used to getting.
“Now they want me to pay for the same service,” says Anne*, a 40-something self-employed patient of the center. “If it weren’t for the fact that I love my doctor there, I would leave this practice immediately. I am outraged by this elitist bullshit. It suggests that someone who can’t afford this fee will receive a lower level of service from their doctor.”
The email also promised that members would be entitled to one “complimentary annual healthy benefit service,” including a “mindfulness meditation session” or nutrition assessment. But Anne wasn’t budging. “I don’t need any of that bullshit,” she says.
Katie*, a single mom who works for an arts organization in Philadelphia and who has been a patient for a few years, echoes Anne’s sentiment and says that she’s currently shopping for a new doctor.
“I am not paying money for the privilege of being around these people,” Katie says. “Somehow they think that $99 is a good deal. I’m already paying a $30 co-pay every time I go there, and that’s using insurance that comes out of my paycheck. And I am loathe to imagine what my experience will be like if I don’t become a, quote, member. I can’t come in right away when I’m sick. I can’t get a quick callback. It’s the thing that doctors should be doing anyway. It’s a bait and switch. It’s insulting and gross.”
Other patients that I spoke to were similarly unenthused.
The center’s CEO, Robert Saltzman, says that he fully expected this reaction but points out that there have also been rave reviews. He also claims that whether a woman is a member or not, she’ll still be seen the same day if she is “really sick.”
But it’s not hard to imagine that a really sick woman who can’t afford to pay to be a member will be bumped in favor of a not-so-sick woman who paid her dues. Or, what’s to stop the office from instituting various membership tiers? $199 gets you same-day service, but for a special “Medical Lite Membership” at $75 we’ll be sure to get you in within a week. But those truly committed to good health can opt for the $1,000 membership for immediate walk-ins, and we’ll even throw in a set of Ginsu knives.
The office sent out another email to patients on Friday, with testimonials from four women only too happy to pay the $99 introductory rate. Saltzman declined to reveal exactly how many women have signed up, but says that the response has been “robust.”
“The health care system is broken,” he says. “The problem is that the insurance reimbursement model does not support having a practice where you get to see your physician every time — not a nurse practitioner. And it doesn’t support having a practice where the physician can spend the amount of time with you that you need. And so we implemented a modest fee to cover services not covered by the insurance companies.”
Saltzman’s model comes out of a study of the center’s business performed by a group of Wharton MBA students.
“They came up with this being a viable way to continue to offer this very high level of service to your patients at a minimal price point,” he explains, adding that there are other medical offices around the country doing the same thing — just not in Philadelphia. “And have you seen our Yelp reviews? We have the highest rating of any medical practice in the city.”
But Katie remains unswayed.
“It’s this weird luxurization of things,” she observes. “Like an airplane. You used to go on a plane and they would feed you and check your two bags, and now you have to pay for every one of those things. The center’s defense is: We have to pay for all of these people and for this office. So where’s all the money that’s coming in going? It’s appalling and classist.”
* Not her real name.
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