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Stop Congress from Driving Doctors out of Medicare

Published in the December 2010 of The Fifty Plus Advocate

Today, more than one million Massachusetts seniors rely on Medicare. They have earned their Medicare, and the security of knowing they can keep seeing the doctors they count on. But, if Congress doesn’t act now, seniors could lose their doctors and future generations could face having to give up the doctors they trust.

Why? More than 10 years ago, Congress created a flawed system, called the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR), to pay Medicare physicians. Because Congress has failed to fix it, Medicare cannot pay doctors what it costs to care for seniors. If Congress fails to act by January 1, 2011, doctors who treat Medicare patients will see their pay cut by 25 percent – and some may stop treating Medicare patients altogether, leaving seniors without the care they need.

Already, some seniors have experienced difficulty in finding a physician – a problem which can be more common for those newly eligible for Medicare. This is one of the major reasons for calls into my office.

It’s a fact: the Bay State already faces a shortage of physicians, and this will only get worse if Congress does not act now.

Although Massachusetts has the highest insured rate in the nation, the physician workforce has not grown, and access to care continues to be a serious issue – with long waits for primary care visits. According to the Massachusetts Medical Society, most doctors say they will not expand their practices until they have assurance that the Medicare payment system is fixed.

Further, 40 percent of practicing physicians in Massachusetts are over 50, an age at which many consider reducing their patient care activities.

Medicare funds are critical to the ability of doctors to treat patients, and to run a practice.

About 20,000 physicians in Massachusetts treat Medicare patients; they employ more than 64,000 people. In the past 10 years, Medicare payments have gone up one percent while the cost of practicing medicine, in the commonwealth, has gone up 34 percent. It’s clear: the numbers just don’t add up. Physicians simply will not be able to afford to take care of Medicare patients – and that’s not right.

To make matters worse, most insurers in Massachusetts base their reimbursements on the Medicare fee schedule – increasing significantly the impact of the impending cuts. And, there is a further affect on hospitals which are heavily dependent on Medicare funds.

Massachusetts, at 16 percent, has an above-average proportion of Medicare patients, compared to the rest of the country.

Thirty-four percent of the state’s Medicare beneficiaries live below 150 percent of the federal poverty level. Massachusetts is also one of 29 states and the District of Columbia that have imposed cuts in services for older residents – including reductions in home care, and to Prescription Advantage, the program that works in tandem with Medicare Part D helping seniors afford their medications.

Medicare payments are critical to Massachusetts. This funding directly impacts our state’s economy, nearly 15 percent of which is based in health care. It affects the job market; here, one in five workers is employed in health care. And, most importantly, it helps ensure Bay State seniors’ access to health care.

While this past election season seemed to be all about voter dissatisfaction with what’s happening in Washington, AARP surveyed our members and found something they agree on, regardless of the party they belong to. AARP members want Congress to work together to stop this cut so seniors can continue to see the doctors they trust.

What Congress needs to understand is that our members believe their elected officials have a responsibility to keep doctors in the Medicare program. Failing to act now means the cut to doctor pay will only grow larger, which could drive even more doctors out of Medicare – and leave seniors without the care they need.

It’s time for Congress to stop pointing fingers and work together to find a common-sense solution.

AARP is fighting against this cut – and to stop Congress from driving doctors out of Medicare. Seniors have earned the peace of mind that they will be able to keep seeing their doctors – and we are going to keep fighting until Congress takes action. We believe Congress has a responsibility to keep doctors in the Medicare program, and we’re going to make sure they meet it.

What can you do? Contact your U.S. Representative and your U.S. Senators and tell them to keep doctors in Medicare. Call today, toll free, 1-800-944-6723. And, for further information or to get more involved, visit AARP Massachusetts online.

Deborah Banda is the state director of AARP Massachusetts, which serves more than 800,000 members age 50 and over in the Bay State. This editorial appears in the December 2010 edition of The Fifty Plus Advocate, the statewide mature market newspaper.

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