Fewer Alaska Doctors Take New Medicare Patients

Published June 1, 2009

Fewer than 20 percent of physicians surveyed in Alaska’s largest city are accepting new patients covered by Medicare, according to a study by the University of Alaska-Anchorage’s Institute of Social and Economic Research.

Only 38 percent of that total are in private practice, with the remainder working in public health clinics or urgent care facilities that offer limited care.

‘Going to Get Worse’

The situation in Anchorage is representative of a growing problem with Medicare and other government-run health care programs, says Twila Brase, president of Minnesota-based Citizens’ Council on Health Care.

“Medicare is an entitlement program that pays doctors and hospitals less than the cost of care, and this problem is only going to get worse as more people reach Medicare age,” said Brase. “Medicare is headed for insolvency. Some people would like to say that we should put more money into it, but the problem is government entitlement programs encourage more use of [services] that aren’t absolutely necessary.”

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services reports $32 trillion in Medicare benefits are or will be owed to American workers who have already paid into the system.

“This is a huge problem that is likely to get worse before it gets better,” said Greg Scandlen, director of Consumers for Health Care Choices at The Heartland Institute. “Medicare is losing participating physicians because it doesn’t pay enough, but that’s far from the only reason. Medicare’s rules and regulations are hopelessly complex, and the federal government considers any errors in billing to be criminal frauds, not just civil torts or contract disputes like in the private sector.

“There is no serious effort to fix any of these problems,” Scandlen said. “If anything, the sentiment in Congress is just the opposite—blame physicians for all of the problems in health care, and increase [government] control over how they practice medicine.”

From Bad to Worse

Medicare reform is “absolutely necessary,” said John R. Graham, director of health care studies at the Pacific Research Institute. “Not only is Medicare crashing into bankruptcy because of unfunded future liabilities, but the program cannot even pay doctors enough today to attract them to treat Medicare patients.

“This is the case despite high payroll taxes for the [Medicare] Part A hospitalization benefit, means-testing premiums for the Part B physician-consultation benefit, and reliance on tax revenues to pay for most of the cost of physician and drug benefit claims,” Graham said.

“Remarkably,” Graham continued, “Washington wants to make this worse by creating a so-called ‘public option’ for working-age Americans. Instead of doing this, they should be reforming Medicare to allow people to keep private coverage instead of condemning our seniors to this broken program.”

Alaska ‘Just the Beginning’

The problem in Alaska “is just the beginning,” said Brase. “The best chance for America’s seniors to receive quality, affordable health care is to get out of Medicare and obtain private insurance.

“Luckily, many [seniors] have enough money to pay for their own health insurance,” Brase continued. Seniors actually tend to be wealthier than other age groups.

However, said Brase, escaping from Medicare isn’t as simple as having the money available to pay for a private health insurance policy.

“According to a 1997 federal law, a physician cannot accept cash for a Medicare-covered service unless he or she has been withdrawn from the Medicare program for at least two years. Doing so, according to the federal government, constitutes fraud,” Brase said.

“With fewer doctors accepting Medicare patients, people need to be released from the 1997 prohibition [against paying] cash for Medicare-covered services when they can neither find a doctor who will take Medicare nor one who has been out of the program for two years, so they can actually use their own money to pay for quality health care,” Brase concluded.

Krystle Russin ([email protected]) writes from Texas.

For more information …

“How Hard Is It for Alaska’s Medicare Patients to Find Family Doctors?” University of Alaska-Anchorage: http://www.iser.uaa.alaska.edu/Publications/researchsumm/