Who's up for snooping on doctors?

Maybe the Obama administration can call this Operation Sick and Curious as an homage to their ATF fiasco, Operation Fast and Furious.  To channel Glenn Reynolds, they told me if I voted for John McCain that we’d get government spying on ordinary Americans with the excuse that it’s for our own good.  And they were right!

Alarmed by a shortage of primary care doctors, Obama administration officials are recruiting a team of “mystery shoppers” to pose as patients, call doctors’ offices and request appointments to see how difficult it is for people to get care when they need it.

The administration says the survey will address a “critical public policy problem”: the increasing shortage of primary care doctors, including specialists in internal medicine and family practice. It will also try to discover whether doctors are accepting patients with private insurance while turning away those in government health programs that pay lower reimbursement rates.

Federal officials predict that more than 30 million Americans will gain coverage under the health care law passed last year. “These newly insured Americans will need to seek out new primary care physicians, further exacerbating the already growing problem” of a shortage of such physicians in the United States, the Department of Health and Human Services said in a description of the project prepared for the White House.

Plans for the survey have riled many doctors because the secret shoppers will not identify themselves as working for the government.

“Secret shoppers” are employed in many industries to determine delivery of products and services.  At one time, I was a Secret Shopper for Domino’s Pizza … which should give you an idea how many pizzas I ate when I was single.  It’s a common way to score both products and service in retail, identify bad practices and poor performers, and correct problems before they spread and start to damage reputations.  I’m not sure how common the practice might be today, when websites, e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter feeds provide customers with rapid feedback options, but it remains at least an option for anyone doing business with the public.

However, “Secret Shoppers” had one thing in common — they were employed by the companies themselves.  Occasionally, consumer groups perform the same function, but that’s also a private-sector function.  The government doesn’t conduct secret-shopper surveys on fast-food joints or clothing stores because customer service levels are none of their business.

Besides, it’s an inappropriate conduct for government to operate in secret unless there is an overriding state interest in doing so.  Restaurants, for example, deal with a host of government regulation at the state and local level.  Inspections are part of that process, but while they may be unannounced, the government doesn’t conduct them clandestinely.  The operators are also aware of regulations with which they are required to comply before inspectors arrive, and those regulations have to become law through some public process.

So where’s the regulation for which the Obama administration wants to inspect?  What authority or jurisdiction does the executive branch have in this instance?  What is the overriding state interest that would justify secrecy in collecting data on the activities of private individuals?  For an administration that keeps insisting that its health-care reform bill didn’t amount to a government takeover of the sector, the White House is certainly acting as if they own the whole joint.