Congress’ frequent delays over the past decade have left California physicians who care for seniors and military families facing a 27 percent cut in payments on March 1.
This massive cut would force many physicians to make the difficult decision to limit the number of Medicare and TRICARE military patients in their practices, severely threatening access to care for these deserving populations. Nearly 5.6 million patients in California alone rely on the Medicare and TRICARE programs for their health care.
This could not come at a more difficult time — more than 10,000 baby boomers are entering Medicare everyday. Physicians are already struggling with low Medicare payment rates and the ongoing threat of cuts. Medicare physician payments have been nearly frozen for a decade, while the cost of caring for patients has increased by more than 20 percent. Medicare’s own advisory committee has said that one in four seniors seeking a new primary care physician in Medicare is having trouble finding one.
We find ourselves in this dire situation because of a broken Medicare physician payment formula created by Congress over a decade ago. There is bipartisan agreement that the scheduled cut must be stopped and this formula eliminated, but that agreement has not yet translated to permanent action.
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The clear answer is for Congress to get rid of the flawed Medicare physician payment formula once and for all, stopping any future cuts and stabilizing Medicare and TRICARE for patients and physicians. Instead, Congress has repeatedly put in place short-term patches to temporarily stop the cut without providing a permanent solution.
These patches only make the problem worse by driving up the size of future cuts and the cost to eliminate the formula. This cycle has charged up a significant bill for taxpayers, increasing the cost to get rid of the formula from $48 billion in 2005 to $300 billion today. If Congress continues on this same path, the cost will double again in five years to nearly $600 billion. Taxpayers cannot afford these growing costs, and patients and physicians cannot continue to weather the instability caused by the threat of cuts.
There is aunique opportunity right now to use projected spending for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to eliminate the flawed formula and protect access to care for seniors and military families. As these wars wind down, projected spending that won’t be used becomes available to pay for eliminating the fatally flawed Medicare physician payment formula to ensure access to care for seniors and military — without adding to the nation’s deficit. This solution would help military members and their families, as well as our nation’s seniors, maintain access to health care.
Accomplishing anything in Washington these days, even with bipartisan agreement, seems to be a formidable challenge. Fortunately there is strong public support for eliminating the broken formula. A huge majority of Americans, 94 percent, say the looming cut would be a serious problem for patients. California’s congressional delegation can be leaders in this important effort.
Please contact your elected officials through the AMA’s Patients’ Action Network at www.patients actionnetwork.com or by calling 888-434-6200 and tell them to protect access to care for seniors and military families and be responsible stewards of our taxpayer dollars. The time to act is now.
Dr. Peter W. Carmel is president of the American Medical Association.