Time to Resolve the “Doc Fix”

Congress’ end of year to-do list inevitably includes the “doc fix” – billions of dollars to avoid deep rate cuts for physicians who treat Medicare’s 48 million patients.  Congressmen and Senators always defer the cuts demanded by a 1997 reimbursement formula — known as the sustainable growth rate (SGR) and which most believe needs to be entirely rewritten.  The deferrals are temporary, and the doc fix has become increasingly difficult to pass through a divided and deficit-wary Congress.  In 2010, Congress put off scheduled cuts five times, with the longest delay lasting one year.

The story is the same heading into 2012.  If lawmakers are unable to agree before returning home for the holidays, 500,000 physicians will face a stiff 27 percent cut beginning January 1.  Although Congressional leaders have vowed to prevent that, they disagree over how to pay for the fix.  There is little doubt some agreement will be reached, but that deal could be delayed until early next year.

The cost of congressional intervention, not surprisingly, has grown: Delaying the cuts — the solution Congress has chosen since 2003 — will cost $21 billion for a one-year delay and $38.6 billion for two years.  Repealing the formula would add approximately $300 billion to the deficit, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

No one imagined that the SGR would cause so much trouble when it was passed as a minor element of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997.  Nearly 15 years ago, Medicare physician spending, which accounts for a small share of the program’s overall outlay, was growing slowly.  The law included other restraints that have since been repealed.  Analysts predicted that, at most, the SGR formula would curb physician payments minimally.  “It wasn’t viewed as a big deal at the time,” said Paul Van de Water, an economist specializing in Medicare with the research group Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.  “They needed a few more billion dollars in savings (for the Balanced Budget Act), so they just tacked on the SGR arrangement.”

Kaiser Health News wonders why Congress doesn’t just scrap the SGR formula.  “Money is the biggest problem.  It would cost about $300 billion to stop the doc fix cuts over the next decade and Congress can’t agree on where to find that kind of cash.  Some lawmakers, including Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ), have proposed using money saved from winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to finance a permanent fix.  While the idea has found favor among some Democrats, other Republicans oppose it.  For physicians, the prospect of facing big payment cuts is a source of mounting frustration.  Some say the uncertainty led them to quit the program, while others are threatening to do so.  Still, defections have not been significant to date, according to MedPAC.  Physician groups continue to lobby Congress to enact a permanent payment fix.”

Dr. Florence C. Barnett recently decided to quit seeing Medicare patients.  She said the plan covered approximately 33 percent of what it cost her to see patients — and found herself facing a growing Medicare patient population after other local neurosurgeons left the program in 2010.  “This is the way the government will ration healthcare,” Barnett said.  “The people who can afford it will have healthcare, and the people who are only on government support — they will not be able to find a doctor or they will have a very long wait.  It’s happening now.”

A survey conducted by the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission found that among patients looking for a new primary-care physician in 2010, 79 percent experienced no problems finding one.  According to the American Medical Association (AMA), which generally resists limits in reimbursements, nearly 33 percent of primary-care physicians already restrict how many Medicare patients they accept in their practices.

Physicians are once again relying on Congress to put off the impending cut.  It’s a scenario that Glen Stream, M.D. and president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, calls a “Lucy and Charlie Brown and the football thing.”  In other words, physicians have become numb to the whole situation.  This year, that numbness could be risky.  “Doctors are sort of numb from this,” Stream said.  “It’s concerning because I think there’s a very serious chance that this cut could go into place and yet many practicing physicians have heard this years and years in a row and it always seems to get averted at the last minute.  I think that they may not understand the gravity of the situation this time.”

Writing on the MDNews.com website, Maggie Behringer says that “Last year the battle to fund the Medicare deficit — $19 billion for the fiscal year — ended in a one-year measure.  The summer saw a hands-off stance from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services when the administration instructed providers to temporarily cease filing claims until Congress resolved a standstill over stimulus spending and unemployment benefits.  The cut projected for January, 2012, should Congress fail to enact the customary doc-fix, totals to 27.4 percent.  The core conflict for legislators — 19 of whom are physicians, themselves — emerges in the inability of the SGR to adapt in today’s economic environment.  The formula was originally developed to bind spending to the economy’s growth.  Despite initial success, the exponential climb in healthcare costs quickly surpassed the overall market.  The subsequent deficits to fund Medicare were further compounded by the recent depression and ongoing recession.  Even if Congress is able to act in time with a temporary doc-fix over the holidays, the fundamental dilemma will remain a question of funding just as the patient population eligible for Medicare benefits enters a major boom.”

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