By TODD ACKERMAN
May 17, 2010, 11:02PM
Texas doctors are opting out of Medicare at alarming rates, frustrated by reimbursement cuts they say make participation in government-funded care of seniors unaffordable.
Two years after a survey found nearly half of Texas doctors weren't taking some new Medicare patients, new data shows 100 to 200 a year are now ending all involvement with the program. Before 2007, the number of doctors opting out averaged less than a handful a year.
“This new data shows the Medicare system is beginning to implode,” said Dr. Susan Bailey, president of the Texas Medical Association. “If Congress doesn't fix Medicare soon, there'll be more and more doctors dropping out and Congress' promise to provide medical care to seniors will be broken.”
More than 300 doctors have dropped the program in the last two years, including 50 in the first three months of 2010, according to data compiled by the Houston Chronicle. Texas Medical Association officials, who conducted the 2008 survey, said the numbers far exceeded their assumptions.
The largest number of doctors opting out comes from primary care, a field already short of practitioners nationally and especially in Texas. Psychiatrists also make up a large share of the pie, causing one Texas leader to say, “God forbid that a senior has dementia.”
The opt-outs follow years of declining Medicare reimbursement that culminated in a looming 21 percent cut in 2010. Congress has voted three times to postpone the cut, which was originally to take effect Jan. 1. It is now set to take effect June 1.
The uncertainty proved too much for Dr. Guy Culpepper, a Dallas-area family practice doctor who says he wrestled with his decision for years before opting out in March. It was, he said, the only way “he could stop getting bullied and take control of his practice.”
“You do Medicare for God and country because you lose money on it,” said Culpepper, a graduate of the University of Texas Medical School at Houston. “The only way to provide cost-effective care is outside the Medicare system, a system without constant paperwork and headaches and inadequate reimbursement.”
Ending Medicare participation is just one consequence of the system's funding problems. In a new Texas Medical Association survey, opting out was one of the least common options doctors have taken or are planning as a result of declining Medicare funding — behind increasing fees, reducing staff wages and benefits, reducing charity care and not accepting new Medicare patients.
In 2008, 42 percent of Texas doctors participating in the survey said they were no longer accepting all new Medicare patients. Among primary-care doctors, the percentage was 62 percent.
The impact on doctors has not been lost on their patients. Kathy Sweeney, a Houston retiree, twice has been turned away by specialists because they weren't accepting new Medicare patients. She worries her doctors might have to drop her if Medicare cuts go through and they can't afford to continue in the program.
“I've talked to them about the possibility,” said Sweeney, who sent her legislators a letter calling on them to fix Medicare. “They're hanging in there as long as there's not a severe cut, but just thinking I couldn't continue doctor-patient relationships I built up over years is disturbing. Seniors should be able to see the doctors they want.”
The problem dates back to 1997, when Congress passed a balanced budget law that included a Medicare payment formula aimed at reining in spending. The formula, which assumed low growth rates, called for payment cuts if spending exceeded goals, a scenario that occurred year after year as health care costs grew. The scheduled cuts, expected to be modest, turned out to be large.
Congress would overturn the cuts, but their short-term fixes didn't keep up with inflation. The Texas Medical Association says the cumulative effect since 2001 already amounts to an inflation-adjusted cut of 20.9 percent. In 2001, doctors receiving a $1,000 Medicare payment made roughly $410, after taking out operating expenses. In 2010, they'll net $290. If the scheduled 21.2 percent cut goes through, they'd net $72, effectively an 83 percent cut since 2001.
The issue caused the Texas Medical Association to break ranks with the American Medical Association and oppose health care reform efforts throughout 2009. Then TMA President Dr. William Fleming said “reform is doomed to failure” without Medicare reform and called Congress' failure to devise a rational payment plan “an insult to seniors, people with disabilities and military families.”
No surprise to senator
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he isn't surprised by the new opt-out numbers, allowing that Congress' inability to reform Medicare is leaving “seniors without access and breaking the promise we made to them.”
“The problem has been how to eliminate the cuts without running up the deficit,” said Cornyn, responding to blame U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, placed on the Senate for not passing a House bill that would have provided a longer-term Medicare fix. “There hasn't been the political will, but we really have no choice but to fix it.”
Cornyn acknowledged the task is daunting. The Congressional Budget Office recently estimated that eliminating scheduled Medicare payment cuts through 2020 would cost $276 billion.
The growth in Texas Medicare opt-outs began in earnest in 2007, when 70 doctors notified Trailblazer Health Enterprises, the state's Medicare carrier, they would no longer participate, up from seven in 2006. The numbers jumped to 151 in 2008, fell back to 135 in 2009 and are on pace for 200 in 2010. From 1998 to 2002, by contrast, no more than three a year opted out.
Now, according to a Texas Medical Association new poll, more than four in 10 doctors are considering the move.
“I've been in practice 24 years, and a lot of my patients got old right along with me,” Culpepper said. “It's stressful to tell them you're leaving Medicare and they're responsible for payments if they want to stay with you. You feel like you're abandoning them.”