No SGR fix, no new equipment, poll says

by Brendon Nafziger, DOTmed News Associate Editor | October 24, 2011
If Congress doesn't delay an impending 29.5 percent cut to Medicare physician reimbursements, doctors say they will cut staff, hold off on buying new equipment and slash appointments for Medicare patients, according to a new poll put out Monday by the Medical Group Management Association.

The poll, which reflected the views of private practices representing tens of thousands of doctors, found physicians weighing a variety of belt-tightening options should cuts mandated by the sustainable growth rate go through as planned.

"Our data reflects a dire Medicare environment for physician practices," Dr. Susan Turney, president and CEO of MGMA, said in a statement.

Although 99 out of 100 practices currently accept Medicare patients, nearly one-third said they would stop taking new Medicare patients if the pay cuts go through, and 9 percent said they would drop Medicare patients altogether.

Many doctors committed to still seeing Medicare patients would nonetheless cut back on the number of appointments, the survey said. About half of respondents said they would reduce bookings for new Medicare patients, and around one-third said they would do the same for current Medicare patients.

Majorities of respondents said they would make other decisions to shore up their finances. About 69 percent said they would delay buying new equipment or facilities, while more than half said they would cut clinical or administrative staff, or reduce their salaries. (Interestingly, only 30 percent said they would put off buying an electronic health record system should the impending cuts go through.)

In addition, many practices said uncertainty surrounding the SGR cuts has already moved them to make certain changes. For instance, about 65 percent said they've already delayed buying new equipment, and about 52 percent said they've rolled back charity care.

Seeking an SGR fix

The cuts, set to take effect Jan. 1, are part of the sustainable growth rate formula, born of congressional legislation in the 1990s that requires Medicare payments to doctors to keep in line with the growth of the economy. While Congress has long kicked the can down the road -- freezing SGR cuts whenever they're due to take effect -- it has yet to abolish the rules, mostly because the cost of overturning SGR is expected to run upwards of $300 billion over the next decade.

However, doctors groups and policy wonks have been lobbying the "super committee," a panel of 12 lawmakers tasked with proposing a strategy to lower the federal budget by at least $1.2 trillion, to come up with an SGR fix. That said, one proposed by a Medicare Payment Advisory Commission panel earlier this month was hated by some provider organizations.

The poll, conducted in October, canvassed 2,176 medical groups representing 93,000 physicians, MGMA said.

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