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Seniors Win Fight to Keep Doctors

AARP and its members helped push lawmakers to stop a big pay cut for Medicare physicians

AARP members and the more than 46 million seniors who depend on
Medicare won a victory on Dec. 15 when President Obama signed bipartisan legislation that stopped a drastic pay cut that could have driven more doctors out of Medicare and threatened seniors’ access to the doctors they trust.  

<p>If Congress had failed to act, doctors who treat Medicare patients would have received a 25 percent pay cut starting Jan. 1, 2011.</p>

With nearly all business on Capitol Hill at a standstill, AARP successfully pushed Congress to pass legislation that would help ensure that in 2011 seniors can keep seeing the doctors they count on. This victory was fueled by AARP members who logged more than 100,000 calls and e-mails into Congress, urging that lawmakers "prevent the payment cut that would threaten seniors' access to the doctors that care for them."

More than 10 years ago, Congress created a flawed system to pay Medicare doctors. Because the system can no longer pay doctors what it costs to care for seniors, many doctors have been limiting the number of Medicare patients they will see. If Congress had failed to act, doctors who treat Medicare patients would have received a 25 percent pay cut starting Jan. 1, 2011.

AARP took on the challenge of pushing Congress to act on this issue during its postelection session after hearing from so many members who were concerned they would lose their doctor if this pay cut went into effect. A national survey conducted in September showed that regardless of what political party they belong to, an overwhelming majority of AARP members in Medicare — 81 percent — were concerned that a Medicare pay cut could block their access to doctors. An even higher percentage of younger AARP members — 86 percent — shared that concern.

Why is this happening?

Medicare pays doctors through a system known as the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) formula. This system was originally designed to keep physician costs under control. The system, however, miscalculated the number of services that would be provided to seniors, which caused physician fees to be reduced to stay within spending limits.

Instead of reforming this flawed payment system, Congress has voted to temporarily block the cut year after year. Unfortunately, each time it blocks the cut, the gap grows even larger and becomes more expensive to fix, which makes Congress less willing to solve the problem. This instability has caused more and more doctors to limit the number of Medicare patients they see.

What's next?

Although this victory should give seniors peace of mind that they can continue to see their doctors next year, it doesn't address the larger problem — replacing the failed payment system that will continue to drive doctors out of Medicare if it isn't fixed.

In public statements leading up to and following the final vote, AARP urged Congress to commit to make finding a long-term solution to this problem an urgent priority in the next Congress — and we intend to hold legislators to their commitment

AARP supports repealing the SGR formula and replacing it with a system that rewards physicians for providing care that is of high clinical quality, patient-centered and efficient. Unfortunately, because Congress has failed to address the long-term problem for so long, the overall cost of replacing the existing formula could run to tens of billions of dollars. While we know this will be an even more difficult fight, it is a necessary one, both for seniors and for future retirees.

AARP believes older Americans have earned their Medicare and deserve the security of knowing they can keep seeing the doctors they trust. That's why after the New Year, we'll begin our campaign for a long-term solution that will give seniors the security of knowing they have access to doctors who provide high-quality care.

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