Doctors Urge Congress to Increase Medicare Pay

Health care reform is now law, but doctors remain unhappy and are still lobbying the federal government. Today the Texas Medical Association held seven press conferences across the state, including one at Houston's Park Plaza Hospital. The doctors say the new law fails to fix a major problem in Medicare payments. Health, science and technology reporter Carrie Feibel has more.
Linda Kalmus is a Medicare patient who has survived cancer and heart attacks. She spoke at the Houston event.

"We have got to step forward, we have got to stand behind our good doctors, and we have got to be able to keep our good doctors."

Kalmus spoke out because Medicare just cut doctor payments by 21 percent. The cut occurred when a funding formula kicked in automatically. Most doctors believe that when Congress returns from its Easter break, it will vote to override the automatic cut. This last-minute save has happened every year for a decade, but each time it causes great uncertainty among doctors. Dr. Bill Gilmer is president of the Harris County Medical Society.

"Some doctors are opting out of the Medicare program completely, some are taking fewer Medicare patients, some are taking no new Medicare patients, and some doctors are just throwing up their hands, leaving the profession and retiring early."

Gilmer a neurologist, says that the end result is that Medicare payments stay essentially flat.

"Each year inflation goes up, my secretaries get a raise, my rent goes up, my cost of doing forms goes up, but Medicare has graciously kept us flat, not negative, but keeping flat does not keep up with the expenses that we all have."

The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, which advises Congress, reports that Medicare pays doctors about 25 percent less than private insurance. Medicaid payments are even lower. And doctors are more likely to accept new patients if they are covered by private insurance, not Medicare or Medicaid.

Congressman Gene Green says that the House tried to fix the Medicare payment formula in the reform bill, but the Senate version left it out.

"We don't have a public option in the plan that passed. Medicare is still our only public option. But we need Medicare to serve our seniors. We don't need doctors bailing out of the program."

Most doctors are still accepting new Medicare patients, but Gilmer warned that could change.

"Without a permanent solution, many of the new health reforms just enacted won't work."

For the KUHF Health Science and Technology Desk, I'm Carrie Feibel.
Bio photo of Carrie Feibel

Carrie Feibel

Health & Science Reporter

Carrie Feibel is KUHF's health and science reporter. She comes to Houston Public Radio after ten years as a print reporter...