- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 16, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Do you have a problem finding a doctor to see you? If you are a senior on Medicare, like millions of Americans, the likely answer is yes.

As a physician practicing medicine in my hometown of Lafayette, La., I saw firsthand the difficulty Medicare patients endure. For years, declining physician reimbursements because of cost-cutting measures led to fewer doctors accepting new Medicare patients. Those problems could soon become much worse.

Seniors could be forced to compete with a large new pool of Medicare enrollees for coveted doctor’s office visits and services. As details slowly emerge of a Senate Democrat “compromise” on a health care overhaul, a proposed expansion of enrollees in Medicare to younger Americans should deeply trouble current Medicare patients.

A recent Quinnipiac University poll found 62 percent of voters already think expanding health care access will drive up their costs, and seniors might have cause to worry more than most. Even an editorial in The Washington Post admits that “the expanded Medicare program would pay Medicare rates to providers, raising the question of the spillover effects on a health-care system already stressed.”

Medicare already faces a $37 trillion shortfall in the coming years as more and more baby boomers join the government health care system. Expanding Medicare to millions of new patients, as Senate Democrats propose, would further hamper the program’s ability to provide quality health care.

In addition to the strain on Medicare to be brought on by the new enrollees, the Senate overhaul contains drastic funding cuts that would further worsen the problem. Under the current health care overhaul proposal, many seniors, including more than 140,000 seniors in Louisiana alone, could see their benefits reduced or the premiums increased.

According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the Senate bill would cut more than $135 billion from hospitals serving seniors. It would eliminate $40 billion from home health agencies, $15 billion from nursing homes and nearly $8 billion from hospices. Each of these important Medicare services helps our seniors during very difficult times for them and their families, and these cuts would hurt their care.

As a heart surgeon, I know we can do better addressing Medicare’s looming budget disaster in a responsible way that cannot be accomplished with these arbitrary reductions. Rather, we need to work together to strengthen Medicare, putting it on sound financial footing to ensure that it will be there when seniors and those near retirement need help with their health care costs.

Current pilot programs demonstrate that high-quality care can cost less. In Louisiana, a Medicare pilot program is helping hospitalized seniors avoid needless rehospitalization and lowering health care costs for these patients and Medicare.

Currently, 1 in 5 Medicare patients returns to the hospital within one month of being released. Complicated post-release directions or a lack of access to timely follow-up visits can cause these avoidable rehospitalizations. The pilot program assigns a coach to Medicare patients to ensure that they can follow their discharge instructions, schedule appointments and arrange care. These coaches help patients avoid rehospitalization, improve the patient’s quality of life and reduce costs.

The Senate health care overhaul fails to lower costs, makes arbitrary cuts that would hurt seniors’ access to doctors and add enrollees to an already stressed program. Unfortunately, many advocacy groups, including AARP, that support this health care overhaul do a disservice to seniors by backing a raid on Medicare funds.

We should not sacrifice quality care to save cost. We can lower health care costs for seniors and all Americans by increasing competition in the insurance market, improving patients’ quality of care, promoting wellness programs and limiting frivolous lawsuits in medicine. It requires scrapping the current Democratic proposal and working together.

However, this week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said, “I think we would do almost anything to pass a health care bill.”

With Democratic leadership like that in Washington, seniors are asking, just what will that mean for me?

Rep. Charles Boustany Jr., a heart surgeon, is a Louisiana Republican and a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over Medicare.

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