ST. PETERSBURG — The way Dr. David Weiland sees it, doctors will have little choice. He says a 21-percent across-the-board cut in Medicare payments, scheduled to take effect June 15 if Congress does not act quickly, will force many physicians to either stop seeing Medicare patients, or squeeze more patients into their schedules.
"This is clearly going to impact patients' access to care," said Weiland, vice president of medical affairs at Bayfront Medical Center and the president-elect of the Pinellas County Medical Association.
Weiland spoke of the looming cut on Thursday, the same day the American Medical Association launched a multi-million-dollar advertising campaign that criticizes Congress for failing to stop the cut.
"Tell your Senators to get back to work and fix Medicare now," reads the large ad, which the AMA says will soon appear in major newspapers. Television and radio spots are also planned. The ad takes special aim at the Senate, because it — unlike the House — did not vote to delay the Medicare cut before leaving Washington for the Memorial Day weekend.
Though the cuts were scheduled to take effect Tuesday, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services delayed them, presumably to give Congress time to resolve the issue.
Recent history suggests lawmakers will do that. Each year for the last several years, doctors have faced the cut, only to have Congress comes in at the 11th-hour to delay it.
But Dr. J. James Rohack, the AMA president, says delaying the Medicare cut only makes the problem worse. In a telephone news briefing Thursday, he noted that what started as a proposed 3 percent cut in 2005 has grown to the 21-percent cut doctors face today. He said the cut also affects TRICARE, the health care program of the U.S. military, since its reimbursement levels are tied to Medicare.
Rohack added that current Medicare reimbursement levels are so low that many doctors have already stopped accepting new Medicare patients or have laid off staff.
Weiland wouldn't say whether doctors in Pinellas — which has a higher-than-average Medicare population — have taken those steps, but he did say that some doctors are moving to a concierge model, which allows them to see fewer patients, but requires them to pay an additional annual fee.
The doctors say a more permanent fix is needed, starting with dumping the formula used to calculate physician reimbursements, which doctors, federal health officials and even many in Congress agree is flawed.
Rohack called delaying the cut a temporary measure that merely "treats the symptoms."
"But it's not a cure for the disease," he said.
Richard Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8330.