President Thomas Jefferson once urged, “Don’t ask, act! Action will delineate and define you.” In the next few weeks Congress and the President can act decisively to begin saving Medicare for the long term.
Medicare provides critical health care to 53 million American seniors and disabled. But it’s in financial trouble. Since 2003 it hasn’t been financially sound even in the short term. Looking ahead, the main hospital trust fund will be depleted in fifteen short years, after which seniors and those who treat them will see a significant cut in health care.
We can’t let that happen. The first concrete step in saving Medicare is solving the way it pays local doctors for treating our seniors.
Today in Texas, less than half of family physicians are accepting new Medicare patients. Regularly neighbors and constituents tell me they can no longer see the doctor they’ve been seeing for years. Due to the flawed way Medicare reimburses, fewer and fewer physicians can afford to treat Medicare patients. Out of frustration and financial uncertainty, many doctors are retiring early or closing their practices to work for larger hospital systems.
This is alarming. If there is any group who needs to see doctors they know and who know them, it’s seniors.
This crisis has been growing for more than a decade. However, last year as chairman of the Health panel on the Ways & Means Committee I was fortunate to help lead a group of Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate that came together with local physicians to craft a fair, permanent and financially responsible long term solution to replace the current flawed system.
The clock on the permanent solution is ticking in Washington. Unless the President and Congress act by March 31, local doctors will be threatened with another 23-percent cut in their Medicare reimbursement. That means fewer doctors to see an increasing number of Medicare patients. That’s unacceptable.
Congress and the President could continue to duck the issue. They can simply ‘kick the can down the road’ by extending the current damaging doctor payment system for another year or two—as they have an astounding 15 times already. Or they can come together and pass a permanent solution now that encourages doctors to see Medicare patients and rewards them for providing quality care at affordable cost.
Funding the new solution isn’t cheap: nearly $177 billion over the next decade. But funding the current system costs nearly that much: $140 billion. Why not find savings in the huge federal budget to pay for the costs of the new fairer solution? After all, if seniors can’t easily see a local doctor they often end up in the most expensive health care setting—a hospital emergency room.
There’s an even bigger reason to find a permanent solution. The hard truth is that neither Congress nor any President can truly save Medicare for the long term unless it first solves permanently the way Medicare pays our local doctors. There is no way around it.
Let’s stop ducking the tough issues. Saving Medicare won’t be easy but there are good solutions if we act soon. If Republicans and the President are serious about delivering on their promises to save Medicare, they will act now by permanently solving the doctor crisis.
Congressman Kevin Brady is the top House Republican on the Joint Economic Committee and the Chairman of the House Ways & Means Health Subcommittee.