Texas Doctors Urge Congress to Save Medicare

Doctors with the Texas Medical Association say Medicare is imploding because of rising health care costs and reduced payments to doctors. The doctors say millions of aging Americans will be without health care if Congress doesn't act soon to fix Medicare. Houston Public Radio's Jim Bell reports.

TMA leaders recently spent several days in Washington urging members of the Texas Congressional delegation to fight plans to reduce payments to doctors who treat Medicare patients. They say if doctors can't make enough money to cover their costs, a lot of people won't be able to get health care. TMA President Dr. Bill Hinchey says that's already happening and it's going to get worse.

"We're going to start seeing fewer and fewer doctors accept new Medicare patients into their practice. Others are limiting it. It's going to be harder to get referrals. We heard instances in Washington where referrals were taking one week to do, and it's now stretching to two, three and four weeks in some parts of the state and country. I think it is a severe crisis."

A recent TMA survey shows almost half of Texas doctors -- 42 percent -- no longer accept new Medicare patients. 45 percent of those who will accept new patients are thinking about stopping. Charity care is another casualty. 25 percent of doctors have already cut back on charity care, and another 45 percent are thinking about it. Hinchey says it's happening everywhere. Doctors and hospitals all over the country, even the famous Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, are now limiting the number of new Medicare patients they will accept.

Hinchey says this is happening because more and more people reach Medicare age every year, but the amount of money available to reimburse doctors for their care remains the same. Payments to doctors are actually decreasing because Congress won't change the funding formulas.

"We need, not just a short term solution, which is to give us a meaningful update to reflect the costs of our business, but we need to find a long term solution."

Hinchey says Congress needs to do two things to stop this hemorrhaging and strengthen Medicare for the future.

"We need to stop the cuts that are pending come July 1, and do a meaningful update and short term fix. But we also need Congress to work on a long term solution. Either rearrange that formula so it's an accurate use of the cost of practicing medicine, or possibly move physicians over to the Medical Economic Index, just like hospitals are, the pharmaceuticals, the nursing homes, everybody else but doctors."

Hinchey says he commends Texas Senator John Cornyn for introducing a bill that would cancel the pending reimbursement cut and repair the formula Congress uses to calculate reimbursements. He says Congress needs to take this crisis seriously, because millions of baby boomers are reaching retirement age and most will be depending on Medicare for health care. Jim Bell, Houston Public Radio News.