Six-Month 'Doc Fix' Slows Medicare Meltdown -- for Now, Doctors Warn

By Susan Jones | June 25, 2010 | 9:29 AM EDT

( - The House on Thursday joined the Senate in passing a six-month Medicare "fix," giving a temporary reprieve to senior citizens who rely on government-run health care coverage. 
The bill reverses -- until Nov. 30 -- a 21-percent fee cut imposed on doctors who accept Medicare patients. The Senate passed the bill last week, and it now goes to President Obama for his signature.
The Democrats’ health care bill, passed in March, does not include a permanent fix for Medicare’s physician-payment formula because the fix would have added billions of dollars to the deficit.
Without the fix, many doctors said they can no longer afford to accept Medicare patients. Even with the fix, doctors say their reimbursement from Medicare is lower than the fees they collect from other health insurance plans.
The fix just passed by Congress is good as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough, said critics, including the American Medical Association:
"Delaying the problem is not a solution," said AMA President Cecil B. Wilson, M.D. "It doesn't solve the Medicare mess Congress has created with a long series of short-term Medicare patches over the last decade -- including four to avert the 2010 cut alone."
The AMA says senior citizens -- about one in four -- already are having problems finding a primary care doctor because of the "complete congressional mismanagement of Medicare over the years." And the organization estimates that one in five physicians already is limiting the number of Medicare patients they treat because of the "instability and uncertainty" of Medicare payments.
"In December, the Medicare physician payment cut will be a whopping 23 percent, increasing to nearly 30 percent in January," the AMA's Wilson said in a news release following the House vote.a

"Congress is playing a dangerous game of Russian roulette with seniors' health care. Sick patients can't wait. Congress must replace the broken payment system before the damage is done and cannot be reversed."
The AMA says the problems will grow worse when Baby Boomers begin entering Medicare in six months. "If the physician payment problem isn't fixed, these new Medicare patients won't be able to find a doctor to treat them."
"End the political posturing and fix the problem: Health care for America's seniors hangs in the balance," Wilson concluded.
President Obama issued a statement on Thursday saying he was "pleased" that Congress has acted "to ensure the security of our seniors’ health care."
"A 21-percent pay cut to physicians’ payments would have forced some doctors to step seeing Medicare patients – an outcome we can all agree is unacceptable. We should also agree, as I’ve said in the past, that kicking these cuts down the road just isn’t an adequate solution to the problem," Obama said.
The president is calling for permanent reform of the Medicare formula "in a way that attacks our fiscal problems without punishing our hard-working doctors or endangering the benefits on which so many of our seniors rely.”
He said he looks forward to working with Congress to achieve that goal.

Medicare says it provides coverage for items and services for over 43 million beneficiaries.