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Seniors Worry About Medicare Cuts

Ruby de Luna

Washington seniors are worried they could lose their doctors unless congress makes long–term changes to Medicare payments. That's according to a recent survey of AARP members. KUOW's Ruby de Luna reports that the concern is real as more and more doctors decide not to accept new Medicare patients.


The survey shows that 84 percent of AARP members worry about losing their doctors. Ingrid McDonald of the Washington state AARP says that sentiment is consistent across the political spectrum. It doesn't matter if respondents were Democrats, Republicans or Independents.

Mc Donald: "For a lot of older people, after their kids and grandkids, their doctor is one of the most important people in their lives — so this is a hot, emotional button. So the idea that their doctor may no longer be willing to treat them is very disconcerting."

AARP has conducted similar surveys in other states with the same results. The survey highlights a problem that has persisted for years. In 1997 Congress passed a formula that determines Medicare payments for physician services. The formula is also known as Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR). The formula also features automatic cuts to control Medicare spending. But in the past few years those cuts never kicked in because Congress stepped in, often at the last minute, to delay cuts. For primary care physicians the current system creates a lot of uncertainty.

Stream: "One of the things that often people don't think of when they think of health care is that most physician offices in fact are small offices, four or five or fewer physicians, and really operate as any small business."

Dr. Glen Stream is a family physician in Spokane. He's also president–elect of the American Academy of Family Physicians.

Stream: "They have significant expenses that are going up over time, and so if there is a significant decrease in revenues to the practice, you have a business problem like you would in any other business where your expenses start to exceed your resource."

Stream says the formula doesn't take into account the costs of technological innovations or new medications that give rise to health care. Adding pressure is the growing number of baby boomers who qualify for Medicare. Already the American Medical Association says many doctors are no longer accepting new Medicare patients. The trend could get worse unless Congress comes up with long term funding solution.

A 23 percent cut in Medicare payments was scheduled to take effect this week. Congress just passed a bill to block those cuts until January 1, 2011. But doctors and consumer advocacy groups are calling for a 12 month reprieve to give lawmakers time to come up with a permanent fix.

I'm Ruby de Luna, KUOW News.

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