Congress must show courage on care for seniors, veterans

Dr. Patrice A. Harris
Dr. Patrice A. Harris

Congress’ pattern of procrastination has led to a series of fiscally irresponsible compromises that threaten Medicare’s physician foundation and endanger access to care for more than 40 million seniors, veterans and military families.

Unless Congress acts, Medicare payments are scheduled to be slashed by 27 percent on March 1, and physicians will be forced to make unwelcome choices, including limiting the number of Medicare patients they take on. In Georgia, the cut threatens access to care for the 1.2 million seniors who rely on Medicare. Almost half a million veterans and military families in Georgia will also be affected, since TRICARE – the military’s health program – ties its payment rates to Medicare.

Congress has intervened 13 times in the past decade with temporary patches, postponing drastic Medicare payment cuts mandated by a broken government formula. Failing to take decisive action to eliminate the broken formula has made the problem worse by compounding the cost of a solution for taxpayers and mandating steeper cuts in physician payments year after year.

As recently as 2005, the cost of eliminating the broken payment formula would have been $48 billion. Today, the cost stands at $300 billion. If Congress continues its temporary interventions instead of fixing the problem once and for all, that eventual cost will escalate to $600 billion in only five years.

Another temporary patch is fiscally irresponsible. The price of a long-overdue solution will never be less than it is right now. It is irrational to spend increasing amounts of taxpayer money to support a payment policy that is a proven failure.

Since Medicare was founded in 1965, advances in medical research, education and training have helped increase the average senior’s life expectancy to age 78 – an eight-year increase. While the practice of medicine has evolved, Medicare’s payment formula created in 1997 remains stuck in the last century. Now is the time for a prudent, permanent solution that will preserve the security and stability of health care for seniors and military families.

As a practicing physician in Atlanta, I know Medicare patients are already having trouble finding physicians in Georgia and around the nation. The government’s own Medicare advisory committee has said 22 percent of seniors have had trouble finding a new primary care physician. The president of the Military Officers Association of America has called the scheduled cut the No. 1 threat to military beneficiaries’ health care access.

There is a unique opportunity right now to use projected spending for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to eliminate the flawed formula and protect access to care for seniors and military families. As these wars wind down, projected spending that won’t be spent on them becomes available to pay for eliminating the fatally flawed Medicare physician payment formula to ensure access to care for seniors and military — without adding to the nation’s deficit. Using this funding to help military members and their families maintain access to care makes sense and is simply the right thing to do.

A recent poll found that 94 percent of Americans believe the impending cut is a serious problem for seniors who rely on Medicare. Doctors have already given Congress their opinion. Patients now need to give their representatives in Washington a second opinion. By using the AMA’s Patients’ Action Network at or calling 888-434-6200, you can learn more about this important issue and identify and contact your members of Congress.

Decisive congressional action is needed now to stop spending billions on patches and eliminate the flawed Medicare payment formula that threatens Medicare’s promise for current and future generations.

Dr. Patrice A. Harris is an Atlanta psychiatrist and a board member of the American Medical Association.