I may end up eating my words about this. We’ll see.
James Rohack, the current AMA President, made a post at Kevin MD about why patients should care about fixing the pending Medicare payment cuts. Basically his take on the matter was that if the cuts go through, many physicians will stop seeing Medicare patients and that some seniors on Medicare will have difficulty finding medical care. I tend to agree with him.
I commented that we should let Congress cut Medicare payments. Stop fighting it. I won’t rehash everything, but suffice it to say that I think we need a crisis in medicine to get things straightened out right now.
A Medicare pay cut of 21.2% has been looming over physicians’ heads for several months now. The same pay cut has come up in the past, but, through some last minute “miracle” (otherwise known as brinksmanship), the pay cuts are averted, the deadlines are extended, and the medial societies pat themselves on the back for all of their hard work in averting disaster.
Now the stakes just went up.
The Senate blocked the latest legislation to extend the deadlines for the pay cut. Pay cuts will take effect on Monday.
Physicians now will have to make an important decision. March 17 is the deadline for physicians to decide whether they will continue to participate in the Medicare program. Things are a little more complicated than this, but the basic consequences of the decision are the following: If physicians decide to participate, then they’re stuck with the 21% pay cut. If physicians decide not to participate, then Medicare patients have to pay the physicians’ fees out of pocket — or find another doctor who accepts Medicare. Why don’t all physicians just drop Medicare and then sign back up when the rate cuts go away? Another arcane rule crafted by Medicare – once you decide not to participate, you can’t participate again for a minimum of two years.
So do physicians drop low payments and gamble that payments won’t go up in the future? Or do they bite the bullet and continue providing services at even more of a pittance? Our physician organizations need to collectively tell Medicare to go pound sand.
Maybe this is what the government wants. Notice how the payroll deductions for Medicare and Medicaid aren’t getting any smaller. But with less people working, the amount of money collected is becoming less and less while the numbers of people needing the services continues to increase. By significantly reducing the number of available providers, perhaps the government wonks believe that they can reduce the amount of money they spend on care.
Initially, that may be true. Then what happens?
First, a good percentage of about 40 million AARP members, and a significant portion of the rest of the Medicare population, are going to become extremely upset when they can’t find a doctor to take care of them.
Then, just based on sheer percentages, every single member of Congress is going to get at least a few phone calls from angry constituents who are no longer able to find medical care. The legislators will go into damage control mode, but it will be too late – because even if Congress raises the pay a week after the opt-out decision deadline, those doctors that opted out still won’t be able to participate in Medicare for another two years. There will be a lot of turnover in Congress in November and that’s something else we need.
If a lot of physicians opt out of Medicare, the health care system will turn chaotic. Maybe a few of the well-to-do elderly patients will pay out of pocket to continue seeing their current physician. However, most will start calling around to find other physicians who still accept Medicare. The wait lists with those physicians will grow from weeks to months.
In the meantime, elderly patients will go to emergency departments for their health care needs because we emergency physicians will always be there to help them when their doctors aren’t available (I’m already starting to see this happen in my ED) and because the hospitals won’t dare to opt out of Medicare.
Hospitals accept Medicare … Medicare pays for care rendered to seniors … seniors go to hospitals. Seniors who come to the emergency department tend to get BMWs (but remember, folks, defensive medicine doesn’t exist), therefore costs to Medicare go up, not down. Medicare goes bankrupt sooner than anticipated.
A crisis like this is what we need to get legislators back to the table to create a better health care plan. It needs to happen. Even the status quo is unacceptable.
I doubt it will happen, though. CMS has announced that it will not process claims for Medicare payments for the first two weeks of March, so my prediction is that Congress will eliminate the pay cuts next week and that all the physicians will get their “full” payments after March 14. We’ll continue in the same dysfunctional system until the next crisis occurs about 10 months from now.
Gutsy move by Congress letting things get this far, though. No matter what happens, this is turning into one helluva game of chicken.
UPDATE FEBRUARY 28, 2010
See Throckmorton’s blog for another good point – with the cuts to reimbursements also come a cut to reimbursements for medical care to all of our soldiers. What happens to Congress?
There are already reports that a bill will be introduced this week to delay the effective dates of the cuts for another 30 days. And the AMA is actually showing doctors how to drop Medicare, if they so choose, including samples of documents to file (.pdf file – also contains excellent explanation of options physicians have regarding participation versus non-participation)
The merry-go-round continues.