Baseball, kick the can, Russian roulette—pick your game. Chances are good that it has worked its way into a metaphor to illustrate the infuriating, perplexing, and altogether frustrating inability of Congress to step up to the plate and pass a long-term fix to the broken sustainable growth rate (SGR) formula used to determine Medicare reimbursement rates.
On June 24, legislators avoided catastrophe by temporarily rescinding a 21.3% rate cut that went into effect June 1. The after-the-fact patch meant that some Medicare claims had to be reprocessed to recoup the full value, creating an administrative mess. The accompanying 2.2% rate increase expires Nov. 30. The reimbursement cut could reach nearly 30% next year unless Congress intervenes again.
“Obviously, there’s a lot of frustration around the issue, especially on the membership side,” says Ron Greeno, MD, FACP, SFHM, a member of SHM’s Public Policy and Leadership committees, and chief medical officer for Brentwood, Tenn.-based Cogent Healthcare. For hospitalists in many small private practices, he says, a major percentage of income comes from Medicare. “It’s a tremendous headache,” he says of the uncertainty. “It’s very hard to plan for. You’re trying to budget and you don’t know what the policy is going to be literally from week to week.”
The Blame Game
Despite the widespread sentiment among doctors that a permanent reimbursement rate fix should have been included in the healthcare reform legislation, skittishness over the price tag led legislators to drop it from the package. Based on last fall’s estimates, the total cost of a reform bill that scrapped the SGR would have ballooned by roughly $250 billion over 10 years, which would have threatened the bill’s passage.
But Congress has since been unable to pass a permanent fix as standalone legislation amid mounting concern over the national debt, and the price of inaction continues to rise. On April 30, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that the cost of jettisoning the SGR formula and freezing rates at current levels had grown to $276 billion over 10 years.
Any serious consideration of lasting alternatives has now been pushed back to the lame-duck session, after the midterm elections. The can has been kicked down the road so many times, Dr. Greeno and others say, that most Congressional members have boot marks all over them. “So now you have a bigger problem at a more crucial time, when money is tighter than ever in a poor economy,” Dr. Greeno says. “And I just think it’s been a failure of our politicians.”
Other healthcare industry leaders have been just as critical. “Delaying the problem is not a solution,” said AMA President Cecil B. Wilson, MD, in a prepared statement after Congress passed the latest six-month reprieve in June. “It doesn’t solve the Medicare mess Congress has created with a long series of short-term Medicare patches over the last decade—including four to avert the 2010 cut alone.”
AMA-sponsored print ads have reminded legislators that delaying a fix until 2013 will again increase its cost, to $396 billion over 10 years. And the association’s June press release asserted that “Congress is playing a dangerous game of Russian roulette with seniors’ healthcare.”
Perhaps a game of “chicken” would be more apt.
Republicans have dared Democrats to spend the billions for a more lasting solution—in the absence of any cuts elsewhere in the healthcare delivery system—and be labeled as fiscally irresponsible. In turn, Democrats have dared Republicans to let the rate cut take effect and be labeled heartless as Medicare beneficiaries lose access to their healthcare providers.