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200,000 Doctors Turning Away New Medicare Patients? Here's How It Impacts You

By Keith Speights - Nov 6, 2016 at 11:09AM

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Many physicians are saying they'll quit taking new Medicare patients or leave the program altogether. Why -- and what could it mean for many Americans?

We're not going to take it anymore.

That's what around 200,000 physicians across the U.S. could be saying about Medicare. Two surveys confirm that many doctors are looking to either exit the federal healthcare program or quit taking new patients. Could this really happen, and if so, how could it impact you?

Image source: Getty Images.

Survey says

In October 2015, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Commonwealth Fund surveyed primary care physicians who accepted Medicare. This survey revealed good news and bad news for Medicare members. The good news was that most non-pediatric primary care physicians, roughly 93% of them, accept Medicare. The bad news was that only 72% of physicians say they will accept new Medicare patients. And the number of physicians stating they won't take new patients is growing.

This survey included 1,257 participating physicians. If their responses hold true for the broader medical community in the U.S., it means that around 200,000 doctors could either turn their backs on taking new Medicare patients or not accept any Medicare patients.

The situation could be even worse now. A Medscape Medical News survey this summer found that 36% of physicians in solo and small-group practices think that there will be a mass exodus of their peers from the Medicare program. 

What's going on? Physicians, especially those in smaller practices, are frustrated with the way Medicare reimbursements are changing. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) is rolling out a new way of paying physicians based on performance rather than the traditional fee-for-service model. 

Many doctors are also fed up with what they view as burdensome regulatory requirements imposed by Medicare in recent years. In an open letter to her Medicare patients last year, Dr. Rebekah Bernard stated:

During and after every visit, I type away at my keyboard, clicking boxes to demonstrate to Medicare that I did my job. My notes, which used to be informative and succinct, now include pages of irrelevant information, disclaimers and computer-generated statements to "document" that I am playing by the rules.

Dr. Bernard said that, while she has "managed to play by the rules that Medicare has set" thus far, she didn't know if she would still be able to serve Medicare patients after 2017. Based on the surveys from Kaiser Family Foundation/Commonwealth Fund and Medscape Medical News, Dr. Bernard could have plenty of company.

How it impacts you

For those already on Medicare whose physicians intend to play by Medicare's new rules, nothing should change. Others, however, could encounter difficulties finding the doctor they'd like to have.

Aside from the potential of physicians leaving Medicare, there are two other factors at work that present challenges. First is a looming physician shortage in general. Economic modeling and forecasting company IHS Inc. projects that "over one-third of all currently active physicians will be 65 or older within the next decade."

The second factor is the increase in Medicare enrollment. Baby boomers are aging. And if Hillary Clinton becomes president and passes her agenda, Medicare could be flooded with more Americans ages 55 through 64.

All of this combined means that many Americans who enroll in Medicare could have a hard time finding physicians who will take them on as new patients. Reality could be farther from the "if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor" scenario and closer to an "if you can find a doctor, you'll have to like your doctor" scenario. 

Chicken Little?

There have been predictions in the past that many doctors would leave Medicare. Those doom-and-gloom forecasts didn't come true.

Could the latest round of surveys suggesting that physicians will turn away Medicare patients be another case of Chicken Little? Perhaps. But even if the sky isn't falling, the outlook for many Americans enrolling in Medicare and being able to find the doctor they want appears to be foggy at best. 

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