Medicare restoration seen as Band-Aid on system’s frailties

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Restoration of level reimbursements to doctors for treating Medicare patients is but another bandage on the larger issue of revamping the repayment system as a whole, Vicksburg physician and Mississippi State Medical Association President Dr. Randy Easterling said this morning.

On a 78-19 vote, the Senate on Tuesday approved stopgap legislation restoring funds for a month to an array of programs including unemployment insurance, highway projects and the federal flood insurance program. Part of the wide-ranging bill halted a 21 percent cut in Medicare payments to doctors that Easterling said further threatened access to medical care for the elderly with Medicaid, which is also affected when cuts take place in Medicare.

“What it does is just postpone the cut,” Easterling said, referring to when the extension for that and other programs ends April 1. “Mississippi has an aging population, and right now, under the present system, we’re losing money taking Medicare patients.”

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Cuts in what the federal government pays for services is supposed to be determined by the “sustainable growth rate,” or SGR, enacted in 1997 to figure Medicare reimbursements. Annual costs to run a medical practice have outpaced Medicare reimbursements tied to the SGR by about 6 to 1, Easterling has said, which has prompted lobbying efforts to come up with a new system. Congress has shored up the system with stopgap measures since 2002.

Many physicians already weren’t seeing new Medicare patients prior to the expiration of multiple short-term measures to keep payments flowing. “We’ve been asking Congress (to revamp SGR) for eight years,” Easterling said. ““The most fiscally responsible thing to do is fix it.”

The $100 billion-plus bill kept alive popular tax breaks and extended longer and more generous jobless benefits through the end of the year. Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., had held up a vote on the measure for days, saying it would add $10 billion to the federal budget deficit. Federal transportation workers had been furloughed since Monday, returning to work by order of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood after the vote. Bunning relented Tuesday — settling for a vote on a measure that would have closed a tax loophole for paper companies that get a credit from burning “black liquor,” a pulp-making by-product. That amendment failed, and Bunning was among 19 GOP senators who voted against the temporary extension bill.

Mississippi senators Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker supported the overall bill, along with Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu and David Vitter.

In recent days, Cochran and Wicker expressed support for ending the impasse. Both expressed general support for overhauling the Medicare reimbursement system.

Mississippi has 477,000 Medicare beneficiaries and another 115,000 recipients of civilian military or veterans insurance benefits, said MSMA.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact Danny Barrett Jr. at