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AMA to South Carolina: Access to Medicare threatened by cut

Nov. 21, 2011(published)

Florence Morning News
Letter to the Editor

To the Editor:

In South Carolina, seniors’ access to health care, and many jobs, will be placed in jeopardy unless Congress acts now to avert a massive Medicare payment cut. On Jan. 1, Medicare physician payments face an across-the-board pay cut of nearly 30 percent due to a flawed payment formula that was created by Congress. This cut is the highest ever scheduled under the broken Medicare physician payment system, and it threatens access to care for our nation’s seniors, military families, and baby boomers now entering Medicare.

Nearly 762,000 South Carolina seniors who rely on Medicare for their health insurance already face some roadblocks to physician access; about one in five Medicare patients looking for a new primary care physician is having trouble finding one. This is linked to the fact that about one in five physicians overall and nearly one-third of primary care physicians say they are already being forced to limit the number of Medicare patients in their practice due to the ongoing threat of cuts and inadequate Medicare payment rates. This situation will become much worse unless Congress acts soon to permanently prevent a steep cut in Medicare payment rates.

Since 2001, Medicare payments have not kept up with the increasing cost of health care, leaving a 20 percent gap between Medicare payments and the increasing cost of caring for Medicare patients. A large, across-the-board cut would force physicians to make difficult decisions to keep their practices open, including seeing fewer Medicare patients. This cut would also harm physicians’ ability to retain staff, jeopardizing the jobs of almost 41,000 people in South Carolina who are employed by medical practices.

Stopping a 30 percent cut in Medicare payments not only benefits the health of patients in South Carolina, but it also benefits our nation’s fiscal health. The cost to taxpayers for permanent repeal of the Medicare physician payment formula has grown dramatically over the years due to Congress’ frequent short-term fixes and budget tricks. As recently as 2005 the cost of permanent repeal would have been $48 billion. If Congress continues to implement the same temporary fixes they have in the past, the cost will escalate to $600 billion in only five years. There is no question that the formula needs to be repealed, and the cost of repeal will never be less than it is today.

With the establishment of the congressional deficit committee, we are presented with a unique chance to solve this problem once and for all. The debt committee’s deadline comes just before the 30 percent cut is scheduled to occur on Jan. 1, providing a critical opportunity to stabilize the Medicare system and stop increasing the long-term cost of fixing this broken system.

The American Medical Association is urging the Joint Congressional Committee on Deficit Reduction to repeal this flawed Medicare payment formula, and Congress also needs to hear from the patients who would be harmed by this cut. A recent poll shows that an overwhelming majority of Americans – 94 percent – think this impending cut is a serious problem for seniors who rely on Medicare, and these Americans need to make their views heard. Using the AMA’s Patients’ Action Network at www.patientsactionnetwork.com or by calling 888-434-6200, you can learn more about this important issue and identify and contact your federal legislators. To preserve access to health care for seniors, contact your U.S. Senators and Representatives and let them know that now is the time to repeal the Medicare physician payment formula to protect seniors’ access to health care.

Peter W. Carmel, MD
President, American Medical Association