After suffering through reduced reimbursement year after year and encountering government rules that caused her to restrict the way she practiced, Atlanta otolaryngologist Dr. Elaina George was fed up with Medicare and what seemed its endless red tape.

“We found that the time it took to be reimbursed was much longer than the average commercial payer,” Dr. George said in an interview. Because of global period payment rules, “several times, we got paid nothing. [Medicare] stopped me from doing the things I was trained to do. I stopped doing head and neck surgeries because it wasn’t cost effective.”

Instead of complaining or appealing payment decisions, Dr. George made a more drastic move. She dropped Medicare altogether. Nearly a decade later, the solo practitioner continues to opt out of Medicare, obtaining payment through some commercial insurers and direct pay contracts with patients.

“Direct pay is going to be the future, and anybody who can figure out how to work around the (traditional) insurance model is going to save money,” said Dr. George, an advisory council member of Project 21 black leadership network, an initiative of the National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative think tank and policy institute.

Dr. George is far from alone. She is part of a growing vocal minority that says dropping Medicare is the only remedy to ongoing payment reductions, extended waits for reimbursement, audits, and growing regulations, such as meaningful use. The feasibility of leaving the program however, depends on specialty, geographic location, and patient base, physician leaders say.

Measuring the number of doctors who opt out of Medicare isn’t easy. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Service’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) said in a 2012 letter to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) that CMS does not maintain sufficient data regarding physicians who opt out of Medicare, and therefore the OIG could not complete an analysis into reasons doctors choose not to participate.

However, federal data released to the Wall Street Journal in 2013 show that 9,539 physicians who previously accepted Medicare opted out of the program in 2012, up from 3,700 in 2009. The CMS had never before released annual opt-out figures, and the data cannot be found on CMS’ website. A CMS spokeswoman declined comment for this story.

Despite the drop-out figures, government statistics paint a picture of growing physician participation in Medicare. A 2014 CMS report shows that a total of 1,226,728 health providers of all specialties participated in Medicare in 2013, up from 1,089,306 in 2012, according to federal data . (The report noted physicians may have been counted in more than one specialty.) There were 219,536 primary care physicians/suppliers who treated Medicare patients in 2013, up from 215,919 in 2012.

But the stats on physician participation do not tell the whole story, said Dr. Austin King, president of the Texas Medical Association and an Abilene otolaryngologist. While many physicians take Medicare patients, he notes that a large portion do not accept new Medicare patients. In Abilene for example, Dr. King said he knows of no internists who accept new Medicare patients. The dilemma means as more of the population reaches Medicare age, there could be fewer doctors to treat them.

“It seems like the government is almost making it more difficult for physicians to treat Medicare patients,” said Dr. King, who limits the number of Medicare patients he treats. “It’s difficult for many reasons, but what I hear most are complaints about the enormous amount of red tape and bureaucracy associated with Medicare.”

For family physician Dr. Andrew Merritt of Marcellus, N.Y., the decision not to accept new Medicare patients made sense 15 years ago and still does today. Medicare is one of the lowest payers in the Marcellus area, he said, second only to Medicaid.

“The trends were there” back in 2000 when he made the decision, he said. “For us, it was fees and regulations, and the regulations have gotten worse.”

The government disputes that more doctors are rejecting new Medicare patients. The percentage of all office-based physicians who report accepting new Medicare patients has not changed significantly between 2005 and 2012, with 87.9% of physicians accepting new Medicare patients in 2005 and 90.7% accepting new patients in 2012, according to a 2013 issue brief from the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. The percentage of doctors accepting new Medicare patients in 2011-2012 is slightly higher than the percentage accepting new private insurance – about 86% of physicians in 2012 accepted new privately insured patients, according to the brief .

“To the extent that there may have been a very small increase in the number of providers ‘opting out,’ that increase has been mitigated by an increase in the share of other physicians who accept new Medicare patients,” according to the issue brief. “Further, the total number of providers participating in and billing Medicare has steadily increased since 2007.”

Dr. Merritt notes while opting out of Medicare might work for some physicians, it’s not practical for all. For instance, in his area, most psychiatrists have opted out of Medicare. “In primary care, it becomes difficult,” he said. “You have to see a lot of people, and it depends on the level of competition.”

Similarly, where a doctor practices impacts Medicare participation, said Dr. Theodore Mazer, a San Diego otolaryngologist and house of delegates speaker at the California Medical Association.

“In my area, Medicare payment is kind of a gold standard,” he said in an interview. “There’s not much that pays better than that. If I can’t pay costs with Medicare, that means I can’t pay costs with any carrier in the area.”

The Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS) on the other hand, believes with some assessment and planning, most physicians could successfully opt out of Medicare. The AAPS has been hosting a series of workshops and presentations on how to drop Medicare and move to a cash-only practice.

When considering the transition, physicians need to examine their patient base, practice demographics and costs with and without Medicare, said Dr. Lawrence Huntoon, editor-in-chief of the Journal of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons. He notes a significant amount of professional time and money is often spent on Medicare-related paperwork and administrative burdens.

Dr. Huntoon stopped participating in Medicare in 2004. His practice works with no third-party insurers, including Medicare, and contracts directly with patients for payment.

“I’m very happy with it, and I’ve never regretted it,” he said in an interview. “You just don’t have someone constantly interfering with the care you’re trying to provide.”

agallegos@frontlinemedcom.com

On Twitter @legal_med

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