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Finding a New Doctor Can Be Hard for Medicare Patients

Losing access to preferred physicians is a top concern for many of Florida's Medicare recipients as news about Medicare payment cuts to doctors makes headlines. Already the number of Florida doctors who accept Medicare is tight: only one enrolled doctor per 1,006 patients accepts Medicare, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

It's a problem that Barbara Ann Cox of Tallahassee knows too well. When her family doctor left his practice last year, she found that many physicians and clinics would not accept new Medicare patients.

"I really had to shop around," says the semi-retired meeting planner. "I called eight doctors and clinics before I found one who would accept me, even though I'm in excellent health."

While several told Cox that they had 6-to-9-month waiting periods for Medicare patients, others refused flat out to take new clients whose primary source of payment would be Medicare. Another told her that he would file Medicare for her after she paid his fees up front and that Medicare could then reimburse her.

The most annoying, however, were those clinics who said they took new patients only to change their story once they learned that Cox relied on Medicare.

"I can understand if a doctor's dance card is full, but they should say that up front – not after the caller says she's on Medicare," said Cox. "I think that is discrimination against Medicare patients."

Cox could have a lot of company if Congress fails to act quickly on Medicare physician payments. Thanks to a 13-year-old law and what AARP describes as a deeply flawed formula for reimbursing Medicare doctors, physicians could see payments slashed by 25 percent on Jan. 1. The reimbursement cut could be forced by the so-called “Sustainable Growth Rate” Medicare doctor-reimbursement formula, created years ago to cut health-care costs, but never allowed to go into effect.

Laws delaying the SGR cut are now scheduled to run out by Jan. 1. If the extreme pay cuts happen, many Medicare patients could lose their doctors or will be unable to find new ones. With nearly 2.8 million Baby Boomers turning 65 in 2011, the problem could become an even larger health care crisis.

AARP is encouraging its members to ask their congressional representatives and senators to pass at least a year-long fix that would prevent payment cuts for at least 13 months.

"Seniors have worked hard to earn their Medicare," said Jeff Johnson, AARP Florida's interim state director. "They deserve the security of knowing that they can keep seeing the doctors they choose and count on."

Cox eventually found a family doctor who accepts Medicare, but it took persistence.

"It's not easy to find a new doctor under any circumstances, and it's only going to get harder for seniors if Medicare payments to them are reduced," she said.

Find more information online about the "doc fix" bill, as it is called.

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