Despite the best efforts of Sen. Begich, legislation that would have preserved the security and stability of Medicare recently fell victim to Washington politics. Sen. Begich, physicians and advocates for seniors are concerned that the seniors who rely on Medicare now and the baby boomers rapidly aging into Medicare may not get the health care they desire and deserve -- all because a broken payment formula may make it impossible for physicians to care for new Medicare patients.
Repealing the broken payment formula would prevent losses of $200 million to Alaska physicians over the next five years for the care of the state's nearly 50,000 Medicare patients and more than 88,000 TRICARE patients.
The current formula takes a hatchet to payments to physicians -- the very people charged with providing high-quality care to Medicare patients. As a result, seniors and physicians continuously worry about the impact of cuts on access to care. In less than two years, the first wave of baby boomers will turn 65 and reach Medicare age. Nearly 90 percent of people 50 and over are concerned that the current Medicare physician payment formula threatens their access to care. America's military families are also at risk, as TRICARE ties its payment rates to Medicare.
Seven times in seven years, Congress has stopped the cuts at the last minute. This action by Congress has temporarily preserved seniors' access to care but also increased the size of the overall problem. Next year, Medicare projects across-the-board payment cuts to physicians of 21 percent, with more in years to come. These cuts, and the underlying formula that projects the cuts, threaten the stability and security of Medicare.
Band-Aid fixes aren't smart fiscal policy; nor are they a smart way to maximize efforts by physicians and others to optimize the quality of patient care. The way we practice medicine in 2009 has progressed in leaps and bounds since Medicare was founded over 40 years ago. Scientific breakthroughs, coupled with old-fashioned patient care, are keeping Americans healthy and active well into their golden years.
How Medicare determines physician payments must also keep pace with the way medicine is practiced today. For example, health information technology can reduce duplication of tests and unnecessary paperwork. Integrating quality measures into electronic tools will further improve patient care by guiding medical decisions toward proven best practices. But without assurance of stable Medicare payments into the future, wholesale adoption of health IT and other expensive technology investments by physician practices is unlikely.
Congress made a commitment to America's seniors with the creation of Medicare, and, thankfully, Sen. Begich understands that they must fulfill that obligation through permanent repeal of the broken payment formula this year.
J. James Rohack is president of the AMA, the American Medical Association.