Five years ago, Janice Lowery of West Tennessee moved to another town, which left her a greater distance away from the doctor she had been going to for more than a decade.
But she wasn’t about to look for another doctor, even though it would not have been hard to find one near her new home.
Instead, she has continued to see Dr. Bryan Merrick at the McKenzie Medical Center, driving an hour and a half one way to get there.
Merrick is a caring doctor who doesn’t dash in and out of the room and make you feel like a number, Lowery said.
“He listens to you,” she said. “You don’t feel rushed.”
Lowery even drives her husband, who is legally blind, to see Merrick for separate appointments.
Like many of Merrick’s patients, Lowery was alarmed this past spring when he was accused of Medicare fraud and lost his Medicare reimbursement privileges for three years. It’s a turn of events that many of his supporters consider an injustice, and they fault distant bureaucrats with not caring about their small rural community.
Merrick, who is 62 and has been practicing medicine for more than 30 years, was found to have $670 in billing errors. That was all it took for the federal government to crack down on him.
“Our whole town is in an uproar,” said McKenzie Mayor Jill Holland. “Everybody is very, very upset about it.”
Holland said it’s an example of “big government stomping on the little guy.”
McKenzie is a town of just around 5,300 people at the crux of Carroll, Henry and Weakly counties, with most of the town, and the McKenzie Medical Center, lying in Carroll County.
Merrick has maintained that the billing errors were clerical mistakes beyond his control and nothing more. A government review covering a 20-month period found 30 incorrect billings for 10 patients, less than one-tenth of 1 percent of 30,000 claims submitted. In one instance, a staff member mixed up two patients with the same name. Some of the other cases involved a review of medical records for non-face-to-face chronic care management services for patients whom the McKenzie Medical Center did not know had died.
Merrick, who didn’t receive any money from the claims in question, said he was caught off guard by the accusations and ensuing punishment that happened without much in the way of due process. He said he has never had any problems like this before.
“It’s hard to believe that something like this could happen in this country,” said Merrick, a native of Missouri who moved to Arkansas and then to Memphis, where he attended medical school at the University of Tennessee. He moved to McKenzie after marrying a young woman from there.
Merrick appealed the decision by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to revoke his privileges but his appeal was denied in August. He next plans to go before an administrative law judge.
“I’m hoping this will get resolved,” he said, adding that he doesn’t want to interrupt relationships with patients that go back 20 or 30 years.
Merrick is no longer able to see Medicare nursing home and hospital patients. For now, he is continuing to see Medicare patients at his practice with a nurse practitioner at his side, but is not charging them. Because Medicare patients make up nearly half of his patient load, the loss of revenue has hit the medical center hard even though Merrick has partners, said Roy Herron, a former Democratic state senator and West Tennessee attorney who is working to bring attention to Merrick’s case. If the decision against Merrick is reversed, he may be able to file Medicare claims retroactively, but the more time goes by, the less likely it is that he will be compensated, Herron said.
Herron has called the case “the worst big government abuse of an individual I’ve seen.”
Lowery said she doesn’t believe Merrick did anything wrong and that being a doctor hasn’t been about the money for him. There is a lot of hustle and bustle at his practice and there are bound to be clerical mistakes every now and then, she said. Lowery recalled a time when she went up to a window and an office worker pulled the wrong file for her. It was for another woman by the same name. Lowery was able to quickly straighten out the situation by providing her birthdate.
Lowery and others have contacted U.S. Rep. David Kustoff (R-TN-8) and Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Bob Corker (TN) to see if they can help. But so far, their offices haven’t provided any substantial assistance.
Kustoff’s office on Friday provided a statement for The Tennessee Star saying, “Congressman Kustoff is aware of Dr. Merrick’s situation, and our office has been in contact with CMS regarding the case since June. The Congressman is disappointed that government overreach continues to prevent cases like this from being resolved in a timely manner. Congressman Kustoff and our office will continue to assist Dr. Merrick as much as possible within our legal and ethical boundaries.”
Alexander’s and Corker’s offices have not responded to requests for comment.
Jill Mayo, a registered nurse and the practice manager at McKenzie Medical Center, said Merrick is a kind and compassionate doctor who occasionally still makes house calls.
“That’s a rare thing in a doctor nowadays,” Mayo said.
Merrick is one of only two internists in Carroll County. He has a lot of cardiac knowledge and is one of the few doctors in the county who handles echocardiograms, Mayo said. The others are doctors who visit the county periodically.
Steve Davis, pastor of Faith Baptist Church in Hollow Rock, began seeing Merrick about 25 years ago after Merrick checked his heart when he was in the hospital.
“He’s a man who loves people and loves to help people out,” Davis said.
Davis said he and his wife lost a son around two years ago and Merrick came to the funeral home and stood in line to talk to them.
“I hope that somebody somewhere would understand what’s going on and do something about it,” Davis said. If the issue isn’t corrected, it’s “going to be a devastating thing to this community,” he said.
Herron said the consequences will become increasingly dire if Merrick isn’t cleared of wrongdoing. Eventually, he would probably also lose TennCare reimbursement privileges and then commercial insurance companies would likely pull out, Herron said.
Herron said another indicator of Merrick’s selfless nature is that he gives his cell phone number to fragile patients and will take calls even at church and on vacation.
Holland, the McKenzie mayor, recalled how Merrick came to see her father at home several times as he was dying of pneumonia in 2011.
Holland, her mother, her husband and their children have also all been treated by Merrick. Her 85-year-old mother has refused to find another doctor if that becomes necessary, as have other elderly people in town, Holland said, which has upset loved ones concerned about their health. Her mother is a Sunday School teacher and has gotten people in her class interested in reaching out to Rush Limbaugh and Fox News and CNN personalities to highlight the case.
Holland also noted how Merrick still goes to football games at McKenzie High School and watches out for the players even though his own children are now grown.
“A couple of weeks ago a player was injured and the first one out on the field was Dr. Merrick,” Holland said.
This is not a man, she said, who is defrauding the system.
Thomas McDearmon is another of Merrick’s longtime patients who is convinced Merrick didn’t do anything wrong.
“He’s a good fella as well as a good doctor,” McDearmon said. “He’s a really nice Christian man.”