5:06pm

Fri December 3, 2010
Shots - Health News Blog

Docs Not Dropping Medicare Patients Just Yet

With all the hand-wringing about big cuts in what Medicare pays doctors, it's no surprise that some have threatened to drop seniors from their patient rosters if Congress doesn't solve the problem.

But a new survey from the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC), the government agency that counsels Congress on how to pay the folks who take care of Medicare beneficiaries, finds doctors aren't actually following through on those threats -- at least not yet.

MedPAC recently surveyed a nationally representative sample of both Medicare beneficiaries and people aged 50-64 with private health insurance. Recall, Congress just barely averted cuts of more than 20 percent in Medicare pay for doctors three times last December and June.

In a surprise, the survey found Medicare beneficiaries had fewer problems finding doctors and getting appointments than people with private coverage.

Of those seeking a new primary care doctor, the vast majority of Medicare beneficiaries -- 79 percent -- still said they had no problem. And while 12 percent said they had a big problem finding a new physician, that was substantially less then the 19 percent of those with private insurance who reported a big problem finding a new caregiver.

The story with getting appointments was much the same: 75 percent of Medicare patients said they never had trouble getting a routine appointment, and 83 percent said they could always get in to see the doctor for an illness or injury, compared to 72 percent and 80 percent, respectively, for those with private coverage.

But with complaints, even anecdotal ones, about seniors having trouble getting access to care rising, there's at least the perception that the problem is growing.

Even MedPAC Commission Chairman Glenn Hackbarth reportedly questioned the results of the commission’s survey, which was similar to those of years past.

According to CQ Healthbeat, which covered the MedPAC meeting where the survey was presented, Hackbarth said he thought the doctor shortage might be worse in some parts of the country.

Congress has once again provided a short-term fix to the doctor pay problem in Medicare. Unless it acts by Jan. 1, doctors are now facing a potential 25 percent cut in pay. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.