AMA: Medicare Cuts a 'Catastrophe' for Seniors, Not Doctors

November 9, 2010

When it comes to urging Congress to fix a broken Medicare reimbursement system, the American Medical Association is bypassing another "white coat march" on Washington, D.C., and instead, counting on the power of camouflage and cardigans.

When it comes to urging Congress to fix a broken Medicare reimbursement system, the American Medical Association is bypassing another "white coat march" on Washington, D.C., and instead, counting on the power of camouflage and cardigans.

Through a national ad in USA Today -and soon to run in Washington, D.C., area papers as well - the AMA is urging legislators to once and for all end the threat of looming reimbursement cuts to the nation's doctors. The appeal comes with just a little more than three weeks until a Dec. 1 deadline, followed by another Jan. 1 deadline, where doctors could face Medicare cuts of nearly 30 percent as of 2011.

The AMA's president, Cecil Wilson, said the "roller coaster" Congress sends doctors on every few months by providing short-term delays of the cuts, "is eroding physicians' confidence and commitment to Medicare." And these latest looming cuts come during Medicare's open enrollment season, when physicians need to decide whether or not to participate in the federal program.

Wilson said it becomes a matter of physicians deciding "if they can keep their practice open" with the current percentage of Medicare patients they have or need to cut their rosters in part or completely. He said physicians need to determine "whether their practice is viable" with patients tied to "an unreliable payer."

Rather than find a solution during the upcoming lame duck session of Congress, beginning Nov. 15, the AMA is recommending a 13-month delay on the Medicare sustainable growth rate (SGR) formula, to allow more time for physicians to work with legislators on a much-needed long-term solution. Wilson said the cost of such a delay would be around $15 billion.

But let's not dwell on the doctors, Wilson added.

The Medicare SGR delay, he said, "is not about physician, but access to care" for the key demographics of the federal health plan: members of the military and seniors. In fact, the USA Today ad features veterans and seniors with the tagline "They did it for us. Congress needs to do something for them."

The AMA further cemented the "it's all about the patients" status with the release of a new online poll, indicating that 94 percent of Americans ages 18 and older feel the looming cuts are "a serious problem for seniors" relying on Medicare. The poll finds nearly 98 percent of seniors (those ages 55 and up) agree with that statement.

Ninety-one percent of that same age group said Congress should act immediately to stop the pay cuts to physicians.

Wilson said he hopes the poll results "are eye-opening" for members of Congress to enact the delay prior to their break for Thanksgiving. The result of the cuts taking place, he said, are a "challenge and catastrophe" for seniors to access their physician.

To further enhance the patient-based argument against the cuts, the AMA is making flyers available to physicians encouraging patients to get in touch with Congress to stop the cuts.

Some will say the AMA's approach is a sign of their delayed lobbying power in our nation's capitol, appealing to legislators' sentimental sides by separating the cuts from physicians altogether. Plus, if you've seen the ad, it is hard to reject healthcare for the adorable older couple or the soldier planting a kiss on the cheek of his young son.

Others will say the AMA is doing the right thing, that physicians will continue to practice medicine and operate their offices, just absent of a large percentage of senior citizen and military-based patients. Perhaps fresh of an election, those who survived and won re-election to office need to be reminded that voters have long memories, especially when it comes to healthcare. Seniors and member of the military and their dependents far outnumber doctors.

What do you think of the AMA's approach? Perhaps more importantly, do you think it will work?
Congress already seems eager to delay a move on the Medicare cuts, so is the AMA essentially asking lawmakers for something they want anyway? Seems like a win-win for both groups to me.