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Congress, don't drive docs out of Medicare

by James E. Wordelman
| December 11, 2010 8:00 PM

Sometime before Jan. 1, 2011, members of Congress should take a moment and think about what it would be like to show up for an appointment with their doctor, only to be told "I'm sorry. I no longer accept your insurance. You'll have to pay up front."

Presumably, this wouldn't go over well with many elected officials.

Nor has it gone over well Medicare patients in Idaho who have heard from their physicians recently that they no longer accept Medicare patients. For 39 million seniors in America, Medicare is a benefit they've earned. It means uninterrupted access to doctors they trust. From where they sit, Medicare provides the peace of mind that they can see a doctor when they need one.

Or does it? Unfortunately, unless Congress acts by Jan. 1, those same trusted doctors who treat Medicare patients will absorb a 25 percent pay cut. Seniors here in Idaho and everywhere are worried that this pay cut will drive their doctors out of the Medicare program altogether. This is the exact opposite of the stability we need in Medicare.

AARP is calling on Congress to stop the pay cut and preserve the peace of mind seniors enjoy when they know their doctor is just a telephone call away. Seniors deserve dependable access to their physicians.

Most Medicare enrollees don't understand precisely why doctors are facing these cuts. For the record, it can be traced back to 1997 and the creation by Congress of a flawed physician payment system.

By all accounts, this system is broken. It was originally designed to hold down physician costs by setting limits on spending. However, the system underestimated how much Medicare would spend on tests and procedures for seniors, which caused physician fees to be reduced to stay within spending limits.

Now, if Congress fails to act, Medicare will be unable to pay doctors what it costs to care for seniors.

Uppermost in the minds of seniors, isn't what's wrong with the payment system. It is rather, the insecurity of not knowing whether they can keep the doctors with whom they have longstanding relationships, and in whom they have enormous faith. So, they want the cut stopped. And they want it stopped now.

The stakes are considerable in Idaho. By taking action during its upcoming lame duck session, Congress can avert these pay cuts and keep doctors in Medicare. According to the American Medical Association, doing so would prevent a loss of $60 million for the care of elderly and disabled patients in Idaho during the next year. As well, 14,832 employees of medical practices and 225,735 Medicare patients in Idaho would be helped by Congressional action aimed at stopping the cuts.

Seniors are unmistakably clear in noting that Medicare is a right they have earned by working hard and paying into the system. It is an integrity issue for them - access to their doctors is a key part of their Medicare benefits and they expect to be able to keep their doctors. A full 81 percent are concerned that a Medicare pay cut could block their access to doctors. So for them, Congress must take responsibility. Partisan finger-pointing is simply not an option.

When the smoke clears, though, the bottom line in all of this is the quality of the health care delivered by Medicare. Patients believe they are most likely to receive quality health care when they can see the doctors they know and trust.

If this pay cut is allowed to take effect on Jan. 1, seniors could very well lose access to their doctors. And this could mean fewer doctors to choose from, longer wait times and a much lower quality of care.

Idaho already has one of the lowest doctor-to-patient ratios in the nation, we can't afford to lose anymore doctors in Medicare. AARP is urging Congress to delay the cuts for a year, and find a permanent solution to this dire problem.

For the sake of those in Idaho who have heard their doctors say "We do not accept Medicare patients;" for the sake of all Medicare patients who have earned their benefits; and for the sake of future generations who believe the Medicare system will provide them with the care they need: let's find a nonpartisan, common-sense solution that won't drive doctors out of Medicare.

Let's give seniors the peace of mind they've earned.

For more information on this effort, please visit: www.aarp.org/keepmydoctor

James E. Wordelman is state director of AARP Idaho.

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