Congress must stabilize pay to doctors for Medicare patients

As physicians, we take our responsibility to patients very seriously. Perhaps that is why it is so difficult for us to understand how Congress continues to shirk its responsibility to patients, physicians and taxpayers by putting off elimination of the widely panned, fatally flawed physician payment formula that has caused instability in the Medicare and TRICARE programs.

For over a decade, this broken formula has plagued Medicare and TRICARE with the frequent threat of increasingly severe cuts that compromise patients' access to care. There is bipartisan agreement — a rare thing these days — that it must be eliminated. Yet that agreement has failed to produce action.

The mantra in Washington when it comes to stabilizing Medicare and TRICARE for patients, physicians and taxpayers seems to be: Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow?

Members of Congress know that the drastic cuts scheduled by the formula would cause irreparable harm to Medicare and TRICARE. They have voted 12 separate times to keep the cuts from taking effect. The latest was just last month, at the 11th hour, moving a 27 percent cut from January 1 to March 1. These shortsighted delays stop the cut temporarily but grow the overall problem exponentially.

This system of scheduled cuts and short-term patches has increased the cost to taxpayers for permanent elimination of the formula from $48 billion in 2005 to nearly $300 billion today. If Congress continues to spend money to preserve a broken system, the cost will double again in five years, leaving taxpayers with a $600 billion bill. That's a hefty price to pay for Congress' failure to act.

While Congress delays, physicians and patients are becoming increasingly frustrated with the resulting instability in the Medicare and TRICARE programs, which more than 900,000 Kentuckians rely on. Frequently scheduled cuts, coupled with a decade of nearly frozen payments and increasing overhead costs, have already forced one in five physicians to make the difficult decision to limit the number of Medicare patients in their practices.

With more than 10,000 baby boomers entering Medicare everyday, and a new generation of men and women in uniform counting on TRICARE for their families, a significant access to care crisis is looming.

There is a unique opportunity right now to use projected spending for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to eliminate the flawed formula and protect access to care for seniors and military families. As operations in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, projected spending that won't be used on war becomes available as an offset for eliminating the much-maligned Medicare physician payment formula to ensure access to care for seniors and military — without adding to the nation's deficit.

A recent poll shows that an overwhelming majority of Americans — 94 percent — believe the impending cut is a serious problem for seniors who rely on Medicare. Make your voice heard through the American Medical Association's Patients' Action Network at www.patientsactionnetwork.com or by calling 888-434-6200 to learn more about this issue and contact your federal legislators. Eliminating this formula is crucial to stabilize Medicare and TRICARE. The cost to taxpayers will only continue to grow if Congress does not act now.