Congress Misses Medicare Payment Cut Deadline

Doctors may soon be forced to accept lower reimbursements for Medicare patients.

ByABC News
May 31, 2010, 3:00 PM

June 1, 2010— -- 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.

"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."