Saturday, June 28, 2008

Medicare patients – if you want to keep doctors you have – read this

The New York Times, of all places, ran a headline a while ago – "THE COUNTRY SAFE AT LAST.; FINAL ADJOURNMENT OF CONGRESS"; I think the grey lady unwittingly expressed the sentiments of all conservatives.

Congress in session, whether dominated by Democrats or Republicans (as now constituted), are unable to restrain themselves. Whether they engage in outrageous spending or excessive regulation, the result is the same; freedom and our country suffer.

The latest fiasco we have escaped from (but probably only temporarily) has to do with congress’ intention to indirectly reduce healthcare for millions of Americans, especially those depending on Medicare for survival. In this case it’s not clear if congress alone is the culprit or whether they have help from the Bush administration.

The problem I am referring to is the plan to further reduce payments to doctors for services rendered to Medicare patients. The payments cuts to doctors are part of a 1997 balanced budget deal during the Clinton administration that cuts money going to Medicare.

Because congress left town, a reprieve was given to thousands of doctors expecting to get hit with an additional 10.6 percent cut in Medicare payments (payments to doctors have been reduced several times in the past). The Department of Health and Human Services will essentially freeze the current pricing system because of the absence of congress for a midsummer break without approving a price change, according to Secretary Mike Leavitt. Congressional aides said the freeze could last 10 days so there is time for those on Medicare to complain to their Senators and congressmen and congresswomen but it must be done right away. Leave plenty of messages for them about this when they return.

The Department is already paying doctors less for services but the Department says that if the legislation is delayed further, retroactive payments to doctors will be made.

In the last session of the senate, Kentucky Republican Senator Jim Bunning led a delay by calling for action delayed by the senate while waiting for Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to return to the chambers. Senator Robert Byrd already distinguished for senile performances, shouted in anger at the delay "Who are you?" and mockingly called Bunning a "great baseball man."

The only source of opposition has been the American Medical Association, and AARP; they have argued that reduced payments would prompt many doctors to drop out of the Medicare system. Even private insurance companies are affected and make a similar argument for Medicare Advantage plans which are a form of private fee-for-service plans. These programs, and HMOs, have been also targeted in the Democrats' bill.

Democrats’ general argument is that reductions in spending in some programs are needed to "pay for" others; in this case they seek reduced funding for Medicare as their means of "paying" for largesse they want to give to others. The legislation could result in $14 billion less for insurers over five years, though an estimate by a House Republican caucus put the reduction at $47.5 billion over 11 years. All this would come from income to doctors.

Democrats are childishly gleeful at their prospects; it has been reported that "At one point during Thursday's debate, (Democrat senate majority leader) Senator Reid literally hopped around the chamber, predicting Democrats would hold "at least" 59 Senate seats next year because Republicans toed Bush's line."

"I don't know how many people are up here for reelection, but I am watching a few of them pretty closely," Reid said, staring at the GOP side of the chamber. "I say to all those people who are up for reelection: If you think you can go home and say, 'I voted no because this weak president, the weakest political standing since they have done polling, I voted because I was afraid to override his veto' -- come on."

Some Republicans have tried to forestall cuts in Medicare payments but sentiment for reduced payments to doctors is so strong on the part of Democrats that it is likely all that can be done is to delay the cuts, especially since the House passed the bill by a veto-proof margin. However, after the senate reconvenes July 7 it will have only three days to pass a fix before the HHS freeze on payments to doctors is lifted; so to preserve your ability to continue to use doctors you have, it is imperative to contact your senators now.

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