More than 80 percent of Georgia AARP members say they’re worried that doctors may stop treating older patients due to an impending Medicare pay... Medicare pay cuts to doctors raise alarm bells
AARP and doctors talk about medicaid and congress

Dr. Cody McClatchey, an Atlanta internist, says Medicare beneficiaries already have an access problem to physicians because of low payment rates. Photo courtesy of Piedmont Hospital

More than 80 percent of Georgia AARP members say they’re worried that doctors may stop treating older patients due to an impending Medicare pay cut to physicians, according to a new survey.

The survey of Georgia AARP members was released Thursday as physician groups and seniors gathered at a news conference at Atlanta’s Piedmont Hospital to urge Congress to halt a 25 percent Medicare pay reduction to doctors, scheduled to take effect Jan.  1.

That pay cut would force many physicians to drop out of the Medicare program, said leaders of doctors organizations, who advocated for a 12-month fix to the pay problem.

Inaction by Congress would have ‘’a disastrous effect on patients in Georgia,’’ said Dr. Sandra Reed, president-elect of the Medical Association of Georgia. “Some of our most vulnerable patients will struggle to find a doctor in their hour of need.’’

Medicare, the federal insurance program for people 65 and older and the disabled, covers more than 1 million Georgians, and 47 million people nationally. The program is expected to spend $519 billion this year and balloon to more than $900 billion by 2020. To help curb that spending growth, leaders of a deficit reduction panel are proposing requiring beneficiaries to pay a larger share of Medicare costs.

Costly concerns

The so-called ‘’doc pay fix’’ issue has flared repeatedly in Congress, with reimbursement cuts blocked several times in recent years. The most recent such action was a one-month extension of current rates passed in November. That postponement cost $1 billion over 10 years, and was offset by changes in Medicare reimbursement for outpatient therapy services.

The doctor pay formula stems from a 1997 budget-balancing law that requires physicians’ reimbursement rates from Medicare to be adjusted every year, in order to keep the program fiscally sound.

Physician groups and AARP are pushing for a permanent solution to the pay problem.  To eliminate the doctor pay formula would cost an estimated $250 billion to $300 billion over a decade.

AARP surveyed members in 13 other states about the physician payment issue. Republicans showed greater concern about the doctor pay issue than members of other parties in all those states, said Will Phillips, associate state director for advocacy for AARP Georgia. “Our members need peace of mind in accessing care. They need to know the docs are going to be there for them.’’

The survey of 800 Georgia AARP members aged 60 and older found that worry about doctors dropping out of Medicare cut across party lines – 77 percent of Democrats, 88 percent of Republicans and 80 percent of independents. Conducted in late November, the survey also found 83 percent of Georgia AARP members on Medicare were concerned they would have trouble finding a new doctor if their current physician no longer accepted Medicare.

Grim predictions

Many older Georgians already struggle to find a physician who will accept Medicare patients, said Dr. Harry Strothers, president of the Georgia Academy of Family Physicians. If the Medicare pay cuts are implemented, he said, one of every 10 family physicians ‘’will have to close their practices.’’

Added Dr. Ramon Suarez, past president of the Georgia Obstetrical and Gynecological Society: “Shame on the Congress, shame on the president, for putting access to care for seniors at risk.’’

AARP member Barry Reid, 71, of Tucker says he had a hopeless feeling when his endocrinologist stopped seeing him and other Medicare patients four years ago. “My doctor explained that he would be losing money to see us, ‘’ said Reid, who has diabetes. He said he managed to find another specialist to treat him.

Unless something is done, seniors’ access to physicians will worsen greatly, he said.

Lawmakers in Washington, Reid said, “owe us a solution.’’


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Andy Miller

Andy Miller is editor and CEO of Georgia Health News

  • Charles

    December 2, 2010 #1 Author

    It is ironic how many older patients are rabid Tea Party supporters, yet oblivious to how their political philosophy is going to hurt them personally. If you take a slash and burn approach to the federal budget, you will eventually be burned personally. Medicare is a very low payer already. Most physicians participate in Medicare because they feel a moral obligation to care for our elders. When doing so actually COST the physician money, things start to change. In the end, Medicare patients will technically have coverage, but there will no doctors that participate to see them. Our elders are going to functionally join the ranks of the uninsured, and that is sad.

    Reply

  • Marge

    December 5, 2010 #2 Author

    Much of the current outrage stems from AARP, AMA and ACP’s alliance and endorsement of Obamacare. The majority of Americans opposed this massive change in our healthcare system including most physicians and seniors who already directly see increased premiums in their supplemental coverage. The message that seniors are getting (despite the PR campaign for commercials showing “happy seniors” with their doughnut hole prescriptions) is that doctors will not be able to afford taking care of them because our new system will be rationing care in order to take care of 30 or more million people as part of Obamacare. One third of this group is the illegal alien population where groups like AARP and AMA have fallen silent. While the doc fix is very important, people see what is happening and the priorities have shifted against helping the elderly to accommodate political interests. What seniors see directly is the shift to Obamacare with less access to physicians and higher premiums for their supplemental care. Furthermore, part of the government solution is to shift care away from physicians to mid-level providers and most people are not happy about that either. I do not know of any physician, including myself, that supports the current shift in healthcare and the doc fix is but one component of the bigger picture.

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