The nation’s doctors are turning up the heat on Maine’s U.S. senators over Medicare reimbursement rates.

The American Medical Association launched newspaper ads Thursday in The Portland Press Herald and other newspapers around the country, criticizing the Senate for taking a vacation this week without averting a scheduled 21 percent cut in payments for Medicare, the public health insurance program for seniors, and for TRICARE, the program that serves military veterans and families.

The cut officially took effect June 1, although reimbursements are being put on hold until Congress returns next week and takes up the issue again.

“The Senate has turned its back on our nation’s seniors and the physicians who care for them,” AMA President J. James Rohack said Thursday during a media teleconference announcing the multimillion-dollar ad campaign. “We’re asking them to stop this year’s cut before there’s a complete Medicare breakdown.”

Congress voted several times in recent months to delay the cut while working on a longer-term solution. The House passed a bill to stabilize payments, but the plan stalled in the Senate, where a majority of members — including Maine’s Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins — have opposed adding the cost to the budget deficit. A permanent fix is now projected to cost $210 billion over 10 years.

The potential cut in reimbursements would not directly affect patients. But it would reduce payments to Maine physicians and hospitals by about $60 million a year, according to the Maine Medical Association. And, over time, the cut could mean that fewer doctors will choose to practice in Maine, doctors said.

Nationally, some doctors are already limiting the number of Medicare patients they see because of low reimbursements and the recurring threat of cuts, according to the AMA. That doesn’t appear to be happening in Maine, according to doctors here.

“We don’t think that we’re going to see physicians in Maine refusing to see Medicare patients,” said David McDermott, a physician in Dover-Foxcroft and president of the Maine Medical Association. “But what we fear this is going to do is make it more difficult for us to recruit physicians to Maine” and keep doctors from leaving the state.

Maine doctors are hit harder by the Medicare shortfalls than physicians in other states because Maine has an older population and a higher percentage of patients who are covered by Medicare. And reimbursement rates are lower in Maine than in other parts of the country to begin with, McDermott said.

Maine is one of 17 states where the AMA is buying newspaper ads targeting the Senate and trying to build support for a permanent fix. The group clearly hopes to win the support of Snowe or Collins, or both.

Both Maine senators have called for reform of the Medicare reimbursement system, but maintained Thursday that it has to be funded.

A spokeswoman for Snowe said Maine’s senior senator has fought for years to reform the system and tried to include a longer-term fix in the recently enacted federal health care reform legislation.

“Sen. Snowe is working with her colleagues to advance fiscally responsible legislation that will avert the 21 percent cut,” Julia Lawless said in a written response for this story.

Collins issued a similar written statement.

“Virtually everyone agrees that the Medicare (formula) used to pay physicians and allied health care professionals is seriously flawed and needs to be fixed,” Collins said. “I have supported extensions, and I am hopeful that Congress will act quickly to find a fiscally responsible way to pay for a longer-term solution.”

 

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

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