Congress Misses Medicare Payment Cut Deadline

A missed deadline by Congress may mean many of the country's 44 million Medicare patients will have a harder time finding a doctor -- piquing the frustration of many physicians who already care for these patients.

On Friday, the Senate adjourned for its traditional Memorial Day break without eliminating a physician payment cut for treatments to Medicare patients that took effect today, which means that the country's doctors may soon be paid 21.3 percent less to treat Medicare patients.

In a statement issued Friday, Dr. James Rohack, president of the American Medical Association, expressed outrage.

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"The Senate has turned its back on seniors," Rohack said in the statement. "Senators are more interested in heading home for the holiday than in preventing a Medicare meltdown for seniors... Already, about one in four Medicare patients looking for a new primary care physician have trouble finding one, and Congressional inaction will make it much worse."

There are signs the Medicare payment will be kicked down the road when the Senate returns on June 7. On Friday, the House of Representatives voted 245-171 to pass H.R. 4213, which among other things would freeze the payment cuts until December 2011 -- though the move came too late for the Senate to act to pass the legislation. If the payment cuts are delayed, it will not be the first time; Congress has instituted such delays nine times over the past eight years, most recently last April.

Meanwhile, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid told doctors groups in a letter on Thursday that it will hold claims for 10 days after June 1 to allow the Senate to pass the bill. But for now, doctors were split on how their already struggling practices will deal with the cuts, should they turn out to be longer lasting.

"I honestly do not know what our practice will do," said Dr. Scott Fields, professor and vice chair of the Department of Family Medicine at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland. "What I can say is that the easiest thing to do would be to immediately close to new Medicare patients. This would maintain our commitment to established patients, but limit our risk."

Physicians Pledge Continued Treatment for Medicare Patients

Other doctors said they would continue to accept new these patients.

"We will continue to treat Medicare patients and will accept new ones despite the chronic reimbursement problem," said Dr. John Sutherland, program director emeritus of the Northeast Iowa Medical Education Foundation.

For some, sustaining care for these patients has become a moral imperative. Dr. Richard Colgan, a family medicine physician at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, said his practice will continue seeing Medicare patients "because it is the right thing to do and we are professionals. True healers take care of people, irrespective of the fee payment schedule."

"We won't change how we treat Medicare patients of course, because we're mission-bound to treat everyone equally," said Dr. Lee Green of the University of Michigan's Department of Family Medicine. But, he added, "This will be an absolute fiasco for primary care physicians nationally... I can't imagine a more destructive thing for Congress to do in the current state of our health care system. To be blunt, I consider this a management failure on the part of Congress, irresponsible bordering on reckless."

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