Doctor: Medicaid ‘on unsustainable path’

Georgia physicians have not seen a pay increase under Medicaid in 10 years. And a proposed 1 percent cut in that payment would exacerbate the state’s shortage of primary care doctors, physicians told state lawmakers Thursday.

The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Health heard sometimes-emotional public testimony from medical providers, people with disabilities, and consumer advocacy groups on proposed spending reductions in the fiscal 2012 budget for the Department of Community Health.

That budget would reduce payments to physicians, dentists and nursing homes by 1 percent under Medicaid and PeachCare, which together cover about 1.6 million Georgians.

Late last year, the Medicaid budget picture for doctors looked even worse, with the Community Health budget plan projecting much steeper cuts to medical providers.

Still, the Medicaid program in Georgia already pays 43 percent less than Medicare, another government insurance program, the physicians said.

Medicaid ’’is on an unsustainable path,’’ Dr. Kathryn Cheek, a Columbus pediatrician, told lawmakers. “We already see practices closing their doors’’ to new Medicaid patients, said Dr. Cheek, president of the Georgia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Dr. Jacqueline Fincher, an internist in Thomson, added, “I’m struggling to maintain a profitable primary care practice.‘’ Dr. Fincher cited Georgia’s current shortage of primary care doctors. That gap would balloon under a large expansion of Medicaid required by health care reform, she said.

Almost 60 percent of births in Georgia are covered by Medicaid, said Dr. Cynthia Mercer, an Athens ob/gyn and the president of the Georgia Obstetrical and Gynecological Society. With rising administration and office costs, and low reimbursements, some obstetricians have left Georgia, she said. “We cannot recruit doctors to Georgia because of these [Medicaid payment] rates.’’

The committee heard testimony about other spending needs and budget reductions, including the proposed elimination of dental and podiatry services for adults on Medicaid.

Cuts to public health and other programs would decrease needed cancer screenings and education about the disease, cancer organizations said.

Advocates for children told lawmakers that a $2.9 million spending reduction will threaten a program that identifies young children with developmental disabilities and points their families to needed services.

People with disabilities, meanwhile, urged the lawmakers to reduce the state’s waiting list of 163 people seeking government aid for services that allow them to stay in their homes, rather than be institutionalized.

Jeff Graham of Georgia Equality, which runs an HIV advocacy program, said more funding is needed to help 1,000 low-income Georgians with HIV who are on a waiting list for a government drug assistance program.

The health panel’s chairman, Butch Parrish (R-Swainsboro), acknowledged the difficult task ahead in making spending choices in a tight budget year. “We’re going to look at it and do the very best we can,’’ he said.