Bay State seniors on Medicare fear losing their doctors



As the U.S. Senate prepares to address the massive 25 percent pay cut facing Medicare doctors, as early as today, AARP releases a new survey that finds the vast majority of Massachusetts seniors fear losing their doctor if Congress does not act now.  Most seniors say they will be more favorable towards their U.S. Senators if they fight to stop the cut.

“Our members are scared that their doctors may stop treating Medicare patients, and that they won’t be able to find a new one,” says Deborah Banda, state director of AARP Massachusetts, which represents more than 800,000 members age 50 and older in the Bay State.  “Across party lines – Democrat, Republican, Independent – they want Members of Congress to stop this cut, and say they will view their elected officials less favorably if they don’t.”  AARP is nonpartisan.

More than 10 years ago, Congress created a flawed system, called the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR), to pay Medicare physicians.  Because Congress has failed to fix it, Medicare cannot pay doctors what it costs to care for seniors.  If Congress does not act by January 1, 2011 doctors who treat Medicare patients will see their pay cut substantially, by 25 percent.  Some may stop treating Medicare patients altogether, especially older doctors who may opt to retire, leaving seniors without the care they need.  Forty percent of practicing physicians in the Bay State are over age 50.

“For many physicians, Medicare patients account for more than half of their practice,” says Dr. Lynda Young, president-elect of The Massachusetts Medical Society.  “Doctors want to care for their Medicare patients, but a cut of this magnitude will make it difficult to continue providing care.”

In Massachusetts about 20,000 doctors treat more than one million Medicare patients.

Eighty-two percent of AARP members who responded to the survey said they would be “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” that doctors may stop treating Medicare patients because of this payment cut.  In addition, 81 percent said they would have trouble finding a new doctor who would accept Medicare should the looming cut take effect.

The survey also found that AARP members, across party lines, want their U.S. Senators to fight to stop the Medicare physician payment cut, with 83 percent saying they would be less favorable to their Senators if they did nothing (82 percent Democrat, 86 percent Republican, and 84 percent Independent).  Conversely, 78 percent would be more favorable to their Senators if they fought to protect Medicare payments to doctors (77 percent Democrat, 86 percent Republican, and 79 percent Independent).

AARP members have been making their voices heard on this issue. Over the course of a week, the Massachusetts Congressional delegation has received more than 8,000 phone calls and emails, with more than half of all calls going into Senator Scott Brown.  The message:  Keep doctors in Medicare.

Members of Congress have responded to AARP by saying:

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.:  “The bottom line is if doctors don’t get paid fairly, tens of millions of seniors and military families who depend on Medicare and TRICARE will suffer.  Failure to fix this problem for good will threaten Massachusetts’ ability to deliver quality, affordable care and our seniors and service members deserve better.”

Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass.:  “I am a strong supporter of permanently fixing the Sustainable Growth Rate, a short-sighted formula put in place in 1996.  Our doctors need consistency in caring for our nation’s seniors.  With deficits on everyone’s mind, I am pragmatic enough to realize that a one year fix is not ideal – but it’s better than the alternative 21% cut to doctors.  I remain committed to permanently repealing the SGR and ensuring our seniors have the best available care.”

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass. in a letter to the editor to the Taunton Daily Gazette:  “I strongly opposed and voted against the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, which cut Medicare payments to physicians in order to pay for a capital gains tax.  Because of this legislation, Congress is forced to pass a “fix” every year to make sure that health-care providers are paid fairly so that seniors have access to quality care.  I will vote for the “doc fix,” but more importantly, I will continue to work to establish a permanent solution to this lingering problem.”

Nearly 70 percent of AARP members surveyed feel a long-term solution to the Medicare physician payment system is needed.

“Massachusetts seniors count on the security and peace of mind they get from seeing the doctor they trust,” adds Banda.  “AARP urges the state’s Congressional delegation – especially Sen. Brown and Sen. Kerry – to stop this cut now and work to provide doctors with a stable payment system so they’ll continue to treat Medicare patients.”

For this AARP survey, Woelfel Research, an independent research firm, interviewed 804 Massachusetts AARP members age 60+ between November 22, 2010 and November 28, 2010.  The survey has a margin of sampling error of +/- 3.5 percent.