I’ll Have the Medicare — & Hold the Mayo

The blogs have been abuzz about the big news from Arizona: The Mayo Clinic in Arizona will no longer be accepting Medicare patients for primary care.

The Mayo Clinic, praised by President Barack Obama as a national model for efficient health care, will stop accepting Medicare patients as of tomorrow at one of its primary-care clinics in Arizona, saying the U.S. government pays too little.

More than 3,000 patients eligible for Medicare, the government \'s largest health-insurance program, will be forced to pay cash if they want to continue seeing their doctors at a Mayo family clinic in Glendale, northwest of Phoenix, said Michael Yardley, a Mayo spokesman. The decision, which Yardley called a two-year pilot project, won \'t affect other Mayo facilities in Arizona, Florida and Minnesota.

Obama in June cited the nonprofit Rochester, Minnesota-based Mayo Clinic and the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio for offering “the highest quality care at costs well below the national norm.” Mayo \'s move to drop Medicare patients may be copied by family doctors, some of whom have stopped accepting new patients from the program, said Lori Heim, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians…

I’m surprised it took this long.

Mayo Clinic has long had a well-earned reputation for providing high-quality care at lower cost than much of the health care economy, due in large part to their successful formula (closed panel, salaried clinic physicians, and the resulting tight peer review) which is difficult or impossible to reproduce throughout the highly-diversified delivery systems in U.S. healthcare.

But Mayo Clinic is now coming to terms with the hard economic realities of seeing Medicare patients: it costs more to see them than you are paid:

The Mayo organization had 3,700 staff physicians and scientists and treated 526,000 patients in 2008. It lost $840 million last year on Medicare, the government \'s health program for the disabled and those 65 and older…

For years, physicians and clinics have simply absorbed this cost, effectively using their cash flow from better-paying private insurers to cover their Medicare losses. And we have reached the point where this calculus is no longer viable — a line crossed some years ago with Medicaid, the federal health program for the poor, whose reimbursements are only 60% or less of what Medicare currently pays.

What we have here is an unsustainable business model.

Typically, the folks at CMS downplay this reality, using the accounting chicanery so prevalent among our government bureaucrats, who love to piss on your leg and tell you it’s raining:

Nationwide, doctors made about 20 percent less for treating Medicare patients than they did caring for privately insured patients in 2007, a payment gap that has remained stable during the last decade, according to a March report by the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, a panel that advises Congress on Medicare issues. Congress last week postponed for two months a 21.5 percent cut in Medicare reimbursements for doctors.

Yes, the gap may have remained stable — but Medicare payment rates have declined significantly over the past decade. In 1997 the Medicare conversion factor per relative value unit (RVU) was $40.97; in 2007, it was $37.89 — a nearly 10 percent decline, without factoring in inflation — and not including significant reductions in relative value units themselves (which are purportedly a hard measure of the costs and value of the service provided, but in reality are frequently “recalculated” to reduce Medicare expenditures), and a marked increase in bundling (wrapping several services together and paying for only one). What has happened is that private insurers have followed Medicare’s lead and also significantly reduced their fees, which are commonly calculated based on Medicare’s rules and formulas, but at a slightly higher conversion factor.

So while the ratio may appear stable, the reality is that both Medicare and private carriers have been dropping their fees, while medical expenses (salaries, benefits, supplies, malpractice premiums, etc.) have risen significantly faster than inflation. So the income vs. expense curves are now crossing for many, if not most, medical practices, and Medicare patients are beginning to generate significant losses, while private reimbursements can no long cover the difference. The only economically sane decision to remain solvent is to cut back or eliminate Medicare patients. The result? Reduced access to care. Of course the politicians will take credit for reducing health care costs — caring for fewer patients will certainly cost less.

Who needs death panels?

This is simple economics, really — but far too difficult for our politicians and liberal policy wonks to understand:

Robert Berenson, a fellow at the Urban Institute \'s Health Policy Center in Washington, D.C., said physicians’ claims of inadequate reimbursement are overstated. Rather, the program faces a lack of medical providers because not enough new doctors are becoming family doctors, internists and pediatricians who oversee patients’ primary care.

“Some primary care doctors don \'t have to see Medicare patients because there is an unlimited demand for their services,” Berenson said. When patients with private insurance can be treated at 50 percent to 100 percent higher fees, “then Medicare does indeed look like a poor payer,” he said.

No, Medicare doesn’t just look like a poor payer — it is a poor payer, and doesn’t cover the expenses involved in providing the medical care it pays for — even for a highly efficient organization like Mayo Clinic. This idiot’s theory is that simply by increasing the number of primary care providers, competition will be greater, and more MDs will be willing to take less to provide care. Law of supply and demand and all that.

So if you’re selling TVs which cost you $500 to purchase wholesale at a retail price of $350 (and that’s the price the government mandates), opening new dealerships will make this arrangement more economically viable, through competition.

Where do they find these morons?

Not unexpectedly, Mayo Clinic’s jilted Medicare patients are none to happy, as they are being asked to pay cash (gasp!) to keep their physicians:

A Medicare patient who chooses to stay at Mayo \'s Glendale clinic will pay about $1,500 a year for an annual physical and three other doctor visits, according to an October letter from the facility. Each patient also will be assessed a $250 annual administrative fee, according to the letter. Medicare patients at the Glendale clinic won \'t be allowed to switch to a primary care doctor at another Mayo facility.

A few hundred of the clinic \'s Medicare patients have decided to pay cash to continue seeing their primary care doctors, Yardley said. Mayo is helping other patients find new physicians who will accept Medicare.

“We \'ve had many patients call us and express their unhappiness,” he said. “It \'s not been a pleasant experience.”

Mayo \'s decision may herald similar moves by other Phoenix-area doctors who cite inadequate Medicare fees as a reason to curtail treatment of the elderly, said John Rivers, chief executive of the Phoenix-based Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association.

“We \'ve got doctors who are saying we are not going to deal with Medicare patients in the hospital” because they consider the fees too low, Rivers said. “Or they are saying we are not going to take new ones in our practice.”

So Mayo’s trying to offload their Medicare patients onto other primary care physicians in the community, who no doubt will be more than happy to pick up these new financial albatrosses.

Best of luck with that plan.

The solution to this imminent disaster in access is not merely an increase in Medicare payment rates — Medicare and Medicaid are hell-bound for bankruptcy, and a few band-aids won’t stem the hemorrhage, but only make it worse. The imminent passage of “health care reform” legislation now bubbling in the witches’ cauldron of Congress will not only worsen Medicare’s situation — half a billion dollars are being cut from Medicare under the new legislation — but will instead bring this access disaster to private insurers as well. As their loss ratios are fixed by law at unsustainable levels, and community ratings forces them to accept high-cost patients without financial compensation for their increase risk and cost exposure, they will be forced to raise premiums to untenable levels — or drastically cut reimbursements to hospitals and physicians.

The system is a disastrous maze, and needs to be completely dismantled, and rebuilt from scratch. And the chances of that happening are zilch, zip, zero.

Welcome to the future of health care in America. Better stay healthy.

3 thoughts on “I’ll Have the Medicare — & Hold the Mayo

  1. My wife and I, not (yet) on Medicare, are Mayo customers as a benefit of the specific plan from Blue Cross Blue Shield my employer (and I) pay for. And to be 100% frank, it is the best medical care we have ever received. The Mayo system is personal, thorough and efficient.

    But with the continuing increases in healthcare costs and the growing gap over what our private insurance will and won’t cover, I fear it is just a matter of time before we, too, will be again shopping for a primary caregiver.

    I agree that the medical and insurance industries need a major overhaul. I will *gladly* pay more to continue our going to Mayo but, at some point, if may become financially impractical.

    And at that point, the comprehensiveness and quality of the care we receive will decline.

    Medicare is four years away for us. What we get will be what Mr. Obama and congress force upon us.

    I’m not looking forward to that.

  2. I agree that the bigger surprise is that it took so long for them to drop it. I think the biggest problem with the health care “reform” bill is that it only marginally addresses the problems in the insurance industry, while not even touching the elephant in the room that is the medical industry. Without fixing the problems with the Medical Industry, I don’t see how any of the measures they have in place do anything but benefit those who run insurance companies…

  3. It’s very easy to keep crying, “Medicare doesn’t pay enough.” (And just for the record, I tend to agree.) However, the question that almost never gets asked–let alone answered–is WHY doesn’t Medicare pay enough? It’s because this country is under the influence of those who believe that any governmental system that takes care of its citizens is, gasp, socialism, or maybe even, bigger gasp, communism. We hear endless arguments about why we shouldn’t have universal, single payer health care, and even when polls show that a majority of Americans favor it, it is never part of any serious discussion. So, huge amounts of our health care dollars go to totally useless (in terms of health care) insurance companies and Medicare is stuck with those who have, in general, the most expensive health care needs, the elderly. At the same time, that care is financed by the younger working generation who are also financing their own health care, whether individually purchased or supplied by their employer. Those whose income derives principally from unearned income, of course, contribute nothing or little to the system. And, of course, none of us is happy to have that money coming out of our income. No one wants to see the FICA Medicare percentage go up. So what happens? To try to remain as solvent as possible, Medicare is forced to limit its reimbursements. Universal, single payer health care would have gone a long way to rectifying some of the problem that is Medicare as it exists today, but a noisy minority has made sure that won’t happen.

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