Physicians, seniors feel squeeze as big cut in Medicare payments looms

The Texas Medical Association and AARP joined forces Wednesday in a grassroots campaign to prevent deep Medicare cuts they say could jeopardize seniors' access to healthcare.

If Congress does not intervene before it adjourns next week, Medicare payments to physicians will be cut by 23 percent Dec. 1 and 2 percent in January.

For 10 years, Congress has been passing one Band-Aid solution after another, said Dr. Susan Rudd Bailey, Texas Medical Association president.

"Each time Congress plays this game of chicken, the cut to physicians grows deeper, and fear among our patients and physicians increases," said Bailey, who is a Fort Worth physician. "Doctors worry about how they can keep their doors open and continue to see Medicare patients."

The problem lies with the Sustainable Growth Rate formula, which sets Medicare reimbursements. In recent years, it has not kept pace with rising healthcare costs, which has led to proposed cuts. Congress has blocked cuts to the formula three times this year.

The flawed physician payment system needs to be fixed, said Ollie Besteiro, Texas state president for AARP. While the cost of medical tests keeps going up, the payment to physicians keeps going down, she said. Seniors need the peace of mind that comes from knowing they have a doctor to count on, Besteiro said.

Doctors want to take care of their Medicare patients, but at the same time they're dealing with cuts that make it difficult to manage their practice, Bailey said. Many have had to lay off staff, cut back on purchases in medical equipment and draw on their personal funds. Last year, the Texas Medical Association reported that 18 percent of its members reduced or terminated services to government payers.

Bailey said nearly 200 Texas physicians have opted out of the Medicare system. But the greater issue is that fewer doctors are accepting new Medicare patients, she said.

That's an issue that concerns Bob Cureton, who will turn 65 next year. It's difficult to find doctors who will accept new Medicare patients, even those with a good secondary plan, he said. And, as baby boomers retire, the problem will only get worse, he said.

Dr. Susan Blue, a Fort Worth neurologist, said she has not stopped taking Medicare patients yet, but she's seriously thinking about it. Of her 4,000 patients, about 33 percent are on Medicare.

She said she cuts corners every way she can to cover her overhead and keep up with her payroll while providing quality care. But it's getting tougher each year. "I can't continue to afford to do it with a negative cash flow, and that is where things are headed," she said.

Jan Jarvis, 817-390-7664