Blog | Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Why Physicians Are Going To Stop Accepting Medicare


This post by Stanley Feld, MD, originally appeared at Better Health.


President Obama's health care reform bill will not work. It is based on decreases in physician reimbursement while forcing physicians to increase overhead with unaffordable electronic medical records. More and more physician groups and practices are starting to realize that they cannot make a living from the reimbursement from Medicare. They are quitting taking new Medicare patients and trying to get rid of the old ones by not taking assignment.

President Obama's idea is to force physicians to be more efficient producers. It is very difficult to force anyone to do anything they cannot afford.

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President Obama also believes that physicians over-test patients in order to make money. Wrong! Much of the over testing comes from the practice of defensive medicine. Many physicians have been sued for under testing. No one is sued for doing a test. Yet there is not a word about malpractice reform in either version of the healthcare reform bill to decrease testing by eliminating defensive medicine.

President Obama's solution is to prohibit physicians from testing in their office even though it is more convenient and efficient for patients. Ancillary services can help with overhead and does increase physicians' efficiency of care.

In fact, the fees for the ancillary services in a physicians' office are generally much less expensive than the fees for ancillary services in hospitals. President Obama ignores this fact. He believes physicians over test for profit. This might be true in some cases. However, this abuse can be discovered with the information technology system we have at present. He believes he can force physicians to tests less if it is outsourced to the hospital.

Physicians on average earn 20% to 30% less from Medicare than they do from private patients, and many are dropping out of the program.

The administration is beginning to feel the kick-back from the physician community. I think this kick-back will escalate in the coming months. It will worsen the delivery of medical care.

"President Obama last year praised the Mayo Clinic as a "classic example" of how a health-care provider can offer "better outcomes" at lower cost."

How were better outcomes determined? The question is unanswered.

"Mayo said last week it will no longer accept Medicare patients at one of its primary care clinics in Arizona. Mayo said the decision is part of a two-year pilot program to determine if it should also drop Medicare patients at other facilities in Arizona, Florida and Minnesota, which serve more than 500,000 seniors."

Mayo says it lost $840 million last year treating Medicare patients, the result of the program's low reimbursement rates.

In Arizona alone it lost $120 million dollars. The losses are usually made up by cost shifting to the private insurers and private patients. These losses are getting harder and harder to make up by cost shifting.

"Mayo Clinic loses a substantial amount of money every year due to the reimbursement schedule under Medicare," the institution said. "Decades of underfunding and paying for volume rather than value in Medicare have led us to this decision."

The media has reported that Mayo Clinic has only dropped accepting Medicare in a small clinic in Glendale, Ariz. It has been reported as an insignificant event by the traditional media. Mayo Clinic is being very civilized by not eliminating participation in Medicare in all the clinics at once. The Mayo Clinic is sending a message to President Obama and his future plans. It will also be a signal to physicians throughout the country.

Ninety-two percent of family physicians accept Medicare. Only about 73% of those are now accepting new patients. This reduction in participating physicians comes on top of a shortage of primary care physicians.

Patients struggle to find any specialist who will accept Medicare. This experience is greatest in the specialties of neurology, oncology and gynecology. Cardiology is next.

Last week cardiologists filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, charging that the government's planned cutbacks will deal a major blow to medical care in the USA.

"It will force thousands of cardiologists to shutter their offices, sell diagnostic equipment and work for hospitals, which charge more for the same procedures."

The lawsuit is an attempt by a group of medical specialists to stave off steep Medicare fee cuts for routine office-based procedures such as nuclear stress tests and echocardiograms.

"What they've done is basically killed the private practice of cardiology," says Jack Lewin, CEO of the American College of Cardiology (ACC), which represents 90% of the roughly 40,000 heart specialists in the USA."

The government's response was politeness. It will hide behind regulations made as a result of congressional mandates. The result is typical bureaucratic gobbledygook.

"Jonathan Blum, director of the government's Center for Medicare Management, says the agency is bound by law not to increase spending when making reimbursement decisions each year."

"Lewin and other heart specialists met with Sebelius on Dec. 8 and explained their concerns. "I thought she was very empathic," he says, but Sebelius has yet to take action."

Kathryn Sebelius will not take action. Neither she nor President Obama really understands the problem, much less the solutions. One cardiologist said it is an efficient way of getting rid of cardiologists and ration access to care.

"It's so absurd, it's kind of funny," he says. "I know ACC doesn't think it's funny, but I do."

It isn't funny. It is an unintended consequence of government control of healthcare. Healthcare should be consumer driven not government controlled. Government should make appropriate rules to level the playing field for all stakeholders and then get out of the way.

A cardiologist in Silver City, N.M., not far from the Mexican border, said,

"The closest cardiologist to me is 150 miles away. With all these cuts coming, it will make it impossible for me to break even seeing 40 patients a day."

Does anyone want the government and its 118 new bureaucracies to take over medical care?

What is the problem?
1. The government is broke.
2. They have to reduce expenditures.
3. Physicians are the weakest link, politically, in the healthcare system because they are ineffectively represented.
4. The government will not fight the healthcare insurance industry's lobbying.
5. The government will not fight the Plaintiff attorney's lobbying.
6. The government will continue to waste taxpayers dollars on stakeholders who add little value to the treatment of sick patients.

It is about time groups of physicians started to make some noise.

Congratulations goes to the Mayo Clinic and the American College of Cardiology.

This post originally appeared on Better Health , a network of popular health bloggers brought together by Val Jones, MD. Better Health's mission is to support and promote health care professional bloggers, provide insightful and trustworthy health commentary, and help to inform health policy makers about the provider point of view on health care reform, science, research and patient care.