Members Get Earful From Angry Doctors During Recess

Posted May 29, 2010 at 11:59am

Lawmakers returning home for the Memorial Day recess may want to avoid a trip to the doctor’s office.

Physicians’ groups are outraged that Congress left town without completing work on legislation that would forestall a 21 percent reduction in Medicare reimbursement rates that takes effect Tuesday. While the House on Friday approved legislation that delayed the cuts for 19 months, the Senate is not expected to take up the matter until after it returns from its break the week of June 7.

“We’re pretty furious,” said Dr. Lori Heim, the president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. Her group is one of a number of medical associations, along with senior citizens group AARP and the Military Officers Association of America, that have lobbied lawmakers to overhaul the physician payment formula. The reimbursement cuts would also apply to TRICARE, which is used by military personnel.

A number of fiscally conservative lawmakers, particularly in the Senate, have insisted that the costs of dealing with the “doc fix” be offset with revenue raisers.

The House had originally considered a five-year fix for the physician reimbursement problem, but to address cost concerns from some lawmakers, it scaled back the plan to three and half years and then to 19 months.

The House bill provides for a 2.2 percent increase in physician payments for the remainder of this year and a 1 percent increase for next year.

Heim said her group had endorsed the longer reimbursement plans but could not support the 19-month fix.

Over the recess, Heim said her members intend to put pressure on lawmakers by calling their offices, sending letters to the editor and informing their patients about the effect of the cuts. The family physicians group posts information about the proposed cuts on its website. Doctors can download those talking points and put them up in their waiting rooms, Heim said.

Shawn Martin, the director of government relations for the American Osteopathic Association, said his members were “pretty disappointed and pretty discouraged.”

Martin said the AOA members were being encouraged to contact their Senators over the break and to attend town hall meetings.

He also said his members were being informed that while the cut technically goes into effect at the beginning of June, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services can hold off on payment of medical claims for 10 days, which would give the Senate enough time to act when it returns.

The American Medical Association, which has one of the larger lobbying operations on Capitol Hill, is also expected to use its clout to pressure doctors back home to mobilize.

“Our grass-roots and patient networks are fully engaged and we’ll be getting the word out in the media as well,” AMA President J. James Rohack said in a statement.

On his blog posting on the AMA website, Rohack was more blunt in criticizing Congress.

“There has been a troubling cycle with Congress, especially the Senate, of not dealing with Medicare payment cuts being caused by a flawed physician formula and then leaving Washington to attend fundraisers and other activities,” Rohack wrote. He added that “physicians and patients must let their representatives and senators know that enough is enough — Congress is wreaking havoc on the Medicare program and physician practices across the country. Make your voice heard during the Memorial Day recess!”

Heim said that if the cuts are not rescinded, or even if Congress continues its practice of approving short-term fixes, a number of physicians may drop Medicare patients or refuse to accept new ones.
“There will be physicians who will say, ‘I’ve had it. I don’t trust Congress. I’m pulling out,'” Heim said.