Is Medicare the biggest challenge to seeing the doctor of your choice?

Medicare was touted as the social entitlement program that would forever change health care access for our seniors.

But is it becoming the biggest challenge to seeing the doctor of your choice?

For the first time in the almost 50 years of the program more and more Medicare recipients are facing the challenge of finding a doctor who will take their government sponsored insurance.

Sure, there have recently been problems with the over 65 finding primary care physicians. But these PCP’s can be hard for any insurance class of patient to find, though much harder for patients with plans that pay 40 percent of current market rates.

As you have seen from my recent blog posts, we are facing a rapidly approaching meltdown of our Medicare system. With no substantial reimbursement increases since 1997, an expanding older population, and medical costs that are outpacing the rate of growth of GDP, more and more physicians and other health care providers are exiting the market space.

But the current state of affairs is about more than money. A whole lot more.

You see money won’t necessarily buy you access to your physician if you are a Medicare patient.

For most capitalist oriented folks this doesn’t make sense. This land of milk and honey we call America was built on one’s ability to buy anything — including access. Whether it be to the halls of Congress or the waiting rooms of medical specialists, the rich (or even the middle class) in the United States have always been given the golden ticket for access if they could afford it.

But current Medicare rules don’t allow for the normal business relationships that have built the rest of our economy.

This stems from the limited participating agreements that physicians are forced to agree with if they desire to see Medicare patients. And, for laws that restrict the payment of benefits to seniors if they see physicians that aren’t a part of the Medicare program.

Physicians are really given only two choices if they want to get paid for seeing a Medicare patient. They can either agree to be “participating” where they are paid directly by the government for delivering care, or “non-participating” where they agree to see an over 65 patient but the payment is paid to the patient and the physician is then responsible for collecting the fee.

If a physician “opts out,” that is, decides to not be a part of the program at all (“par” or “non-par”), then they can see a Medicare patient only if a complicated set of constantly renewed contracts are completed.

But here’s the catch: the patient cannot receive any reimbursement from the government for the cost of the care.

That’s right, as a Medicare patient you lose your benefits from the federal government entitlement program if you enter into a contract with a physician who is not part of the system. You won’t even get reimbursed for what Medicare would have paid if the physician was a program provider.

Now honestly this has never been much of a problem: most physicians participated in the program and very few were “non-par”, much less opted out. A big impediment to even testing the water of opting out has been the mandatory two year waiting period that physicians must survive before they are allowed to rejoin the system.

That was until the post-Obamacare age we live in now.

Funding the Medicare system has become laughable with a recurrent litany of temporary fixes that now provide only a month-to-month operating budget for the program.

It is this uncertainty combined with the decline in overall revenue that is driving physicians to opt out of the program and into the world of direct contracting.

Is it fair for the federal government to get a free ride on the backs of American seniors by no longer being responsible for providing health care dollars?

If you are an entitled Medicare recipient and you see a physician of your choosing who might not be a part of the system, why shouldn’t you at least be able to get reimbursed for your out of pocket costs to the limits of the allowable Medicare charge?

So I guess the answer to the question is, that for now, the government is not “telling patients they can’t see the doctor of their choice” but they are telling them that they aren’t going to pay for it.

As we move forward into the Republican controlled Congress, and free market capitalism begins to rein supreme, we are almost certain to see challenges to the current status quo. Not only will patients begin to demand the right to see the physician of their choice, Republicans may see changes in the law as a way to limit growth of the program and curb the government’s responsibility for cost increases.

Of course, with these rights patients risk a higher amount of out-of-pocket costs.

It’s unclear if the political winds will blow to enhance the laws surrounding direct contracting — loosening the restrictions on physicians from offering these deals and for patients electing to sign up — but it is almost certain to be a part of the discussion very soon.

Dan McCoy is a dermatologist who blogs at docdano.com.

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