Friday, November 11, 2011

On Veterans Day, Will Congress Deny Health Care to Military Families?

The families of our nation’s military could lose their doctors. As America celebrates Veterans Day, veteran and medical groups are asking Congress to protect military families’ ability to see a physician when they need to.

The Texas Medical Association (TMA) is calling on Congress to stop a scheduled 27.4-percent cut in Medicare and TRICARE physician payments*. You can help by clicking on the Stop Medicare Meltdown box to the right of this blog post. Ask Congress to fix the broken physician payment system and keep doctors for our military families.

The cut is scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1 unless Congress intervenes. TRICARE is the health insurer for America’s military families, while Medicare insures senior citizens and people with disabilities. TRICARE bases its rates on Medicare rates.

“As we honor our veterans, our nation should show its appreciation for our military by upholding our commitment to care for their families,” said TMA President C. Bruce Malone, MD. “Physicians want to care for these families just as we love caring for our Medicare patients, but we need Congress to do its part, so we can do ours. It is tragic that there is even a doubt,” added Dr. Malone, a military veteran himself.

The Medicare and TRICARE physician payment problem has existed for 10 years. Federal law adjusts Medicare payments to physicians annually using the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) formula. Because of flaws in how it was designed, the SGR formula has mandated 11 physician payment cuts – every year for the past decade. Only short-term congressional fixes have stopped most of the cuts. In 2010 alone, Congress had to intervene five times to stop a 25-percent cut. Yet during this same 10-year period, hospitals, skilled nursing homes, home health agencies, and inpatient rehabilitation facilities all received annual Medicare pay increases, because they are paid by a different formula. TMA believes, at a minimum, Washington needs to fix the broken physician payment system before giving more payment updates to other Medicare providers.

As it is, military families, seniors, and Texans with disabilities are at serious risk of losing their doctors. A new TMA survey indicates that 50 percent of Texas physicians are considering opting out of the Medicare program altogether. In Texas alone, nearly 870,000 patients rely on TRICARE, and 2.9 million more rely on Medicare.

“It’s tragic. Medicare simply cannot work without physicians to care for the millions of patients who depend on it. Congress can’t wait any longer,” added Dr. Malone.

That is why TMA, AMA, and MOAA are asking the United States Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction to send legislation to Congress that will repeal the Medicare physician formula before the cut takes place.

“This payment cut is the No. 1 threat to military beneficiaries’ health care access,” said MOAA President Vice Admiral Norb Ryan Jr., USN-Ret. “Having just returned from visiting with our troops in Afghanistan earlier this month, I know the last thing our deployed service members should have to worry about is whether their sick spouse or child will have a difficult time getting the health care they need.

“As a physician who served in the military, I understand how important TRICARE is for service members and their families,” said AMA Board Chair Robert Wah, MD, who served as a captain in the United States Navy Medical Corps for 23 years. “Members of the military and their families are already making great sacrifices every day; access to health care should not be one of them.”

*The original cut was forecast to be 29.5 percent, but new Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) estimates place Jan. 1 physician payment cut at 27.4 percent because Medicare cost growth has been less than expected.

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