But prominent health-care analysts — including those serving an independent agency charged with advising Congress on Medicare — suggest the problem is not that doctors will be short-changed, but that most will continue to be paid too much. And when it comes to hospitals, other experts contend the impending cuts are marginal enough to be easily absorbed and could even encourage more efficient care.
The “sequester” mandated by the law that created the debt panel in August will reduce federal spending by $1.2 trillion through automatic, across-the-board cuts to a vast swath of programs from 2013 to 2021. In contrast to the cuts to Defense and discretionary programs, those to Medicare will be capped at 2 percent per year. Seniors’ premiums and cost-sharing cannot be raised. Instead, the reductions will come out of Medicare’s payments to providers and managed care plans, for an estimated total cut of $123 billion through 2021.
Advocates for providers say that’s enough to disrupt medical practices and hospitals operating under tight margins. Physicians’ representatives say the impact will also be magnified by other looming reductions to their Medicare compensation.
These include a penalty stemming from a 2008 law that will reduce payments by as much as 2 percent by 2014 for doctors who fail to use electronic prescription systems.
Physicians are also dogged by the fearsome, if highly remote, threat of a nearly 30 percent Medicare pay cut beginning Jan. 1 that is called for under Medicare’s long-standing rate-setting formula. Intended to keep Medicare spending on doctors in line with overall economic growth, the formula has called for a series of increasingly steep cuts since 2002. Congress has repeatedly put these off through stop-gap bills — with the latest set to expire Dec. 31. And lawmakers are widely expected to pass another temporary fix for 2012.
Still, the constant uncertainty over the issue is “like a psychological sword of Damocles hanging over our heads,” said the American Medical Association’s president-elect, Jeremy Lazarus.
Furthermore, he said, the payment increases that Congress has enacted in place of the formula have failed to keep pace with the rise in expenses doctors face.
Pile on the sequester, concluded Lazarus, and “you’re just adding one more business risk for physicians who are already trying to make a decision about whether they can afford to continue seeing Medicare patients.”
However, analysts at the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, or MedPAC, an independent congressional oversight panel, found that doctors have more than compensated for the slow growth in Medicare fees by providing ever more pricey types of medical services in ever greater quantities. As a result, Medicare’s spending per patient increased by 64 percent from 2000 to 2010 — nearly three times as fast as the rise in physician expenses.