MDs Had Hopes Pinned on Super Committee

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4min 25sec

In all the drama over the Congressional super committee one voice that’s been shouting to be heard has been mostly lost. Doctors made a big push to get the super committee to fix how Medicare pays them.
CPR Health Reporter Eric Whitney says doctors are threatening to stop seeing Medicare patients if Congress doesn’t stabilize the program.

CPR Health Reporter Eric Whitney: Nearly one in five Coloradans gets health coverage from Medicare. Most of them are retirees, like Bettie Faith, who lives in Rocky Ford, and likes to sing.

Retiree Bettie Faith of Rocky Ford: I sing, so I asked the Lord, I said, 'well, if you’ll help me, I’ll continue to sing for you.'

Reporter: Faith, who shared her experience with the non-profit group Colorado Health Story, needs help because she has chronic lung disease, and needs regular medical care.

Faith: Thank God for Medicare, because it would have been impossible to survive what we’ve been through if we had not had that medical assistance.

Reporter: Retirees like Faith who rely on Medicare may have a lot harder time getting a doctor’s appointment if Congress doesn’t fix how Medicare pays physicians.

Jan Kief, president-elect, Colorado Medical Society: They will not accept new Medicare patients at all, it is a very big trend.

Reporter: Dr. Jan Kief is president-elect of the state’s biggest physicians’ organization, the Colorado Medical Society. She says doctors are reaching the breaking point in dealing with Medicare. They’re sick of the formula that puts Medicare payments to doctors on the chopping block every year. This year doctors’ fees are supposed to be cut 30 percent. Kief says that doesn’t poll well with Colorado Medical Soceity MDs.

Kief: If the cuts went into play, only one in 10 said they’d continue to accept new Medicare patients.

Reporter: It can already be difficult to find a doctor who takes Medicare now, especially in rural parts of Colorado.

If big cuts caused doctors to shun Medicare altogether it would wreak havoc. That’s why Congress never actually makes the cuts, except on paper. That helps balance the books
But when it comes time to actually put the squeeze on doctors and their senior citizen patients? It never happens.
Still, Jan Kief says this annual fiscal dance make doctors wonder if it’s worth it.

Kief: The uncertainty is one of the things that is driving physicians to not be able to take increase in Medicare patients.

Reporter: The Colorado Medical Society and its parent organization, the American Medical Association, have been pushing Congress to reform Medicare’s doctor payment formula for years. This year, with the prospect of the Congressional super committee potentially making big change to Medicare, the AMA made an extra effort. It’s run TV ads like this one, showing a senior citizen hanging from a big bunch of balloons.

AMA Ad: Medicare keeps many seniors afloat, but Medicare payments to doctors are scheduled to be cut by 30 percent in January. It means doctors may have to limit the number of Medicare patients they see, or even stop seeing them all together to keep their doors open.

Reporter: The ad says people should call their Congressional representatives and tell them it’s time to permanently fix the Medicare doctor payment system.
Dr. Kief, with the Colorado Medical Society says that starts with repealing the current payment formula.

Kief: And then instituting a five-year stabilization. It would lay a new pathway for the new payment system.

Reporter: Five years would give doctors and Medicare a chance to try out new payment ideas, Kief says -– like paying doctors to keep patients healthy instead of paying for every individual test and procedure.

Kief: After that, we could see what works, and implement those, and physicians would have a chance to choose from possibly a menu of options, because communities are not always the same.

Reporter: There’s bipartisan support in Washington for repealing the doctor payment formula. The catch is, doing that would cost about $300 bilion up front.
The big price tag is why doctors are pinning their hopes on current budget negotiations, where Congressional leaders are at least talking about making big changes.
But it now appears the super committee is going to fail to meet its Wednesday deadline to do so.
Doctors say they’re willing to work with Congress to help Medicare save money, if it takes this opportunity to make a substantial change. If not, many doctors say they’ll just stop taking Medicare patients.

[Photo: CPR News]