Along with the sometimes challenging health issues facing many seniors, there is a new problem that more people are going to have to learn how to deal with—the problem of doctor shortages.
There are already many physicians who are no longer accepting new Medicare patients. In fact, AARP states that the nation is short approximately 16,000 doctors who previously treated senior citizens. This has already created problems for many new Medicare recipients as they discover their current provider will no longer treat them now that they are covered by Medicare.
Budget Cuts a Big Problem
Cuts to the Medicare budget can be blamed for the loss of many doctors. Since Medicare is operating with far less money in reserve, they’ve had to cut the amount they will pay for medical services. This makes it difficult for practitioners to not just make a profit but to continue providing services to Medicare patients in general.
Although the Medicare system is no stranger to budget cuts—after all, Medicare always seems to be on the chopping block when the government must cut spending—the Affordable Care Act has intensified this problem. Money in the government coffers designated for the training of new primary care providers may be cut, just like almost half of the Prevention and Public Health Fund has been cut.
Shrinking Provider Networks on the Horizon
Many doctors have expressed opposition to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Not all of the health insurance plans offered on the health exchanges are accepted everywhere, and provider networks are shrinking. While on the surface this does not seem to have anything to do with Medicare, the resulting decrease in physicians who will accept any insurance plan has a direct impact on Medicare recipients.
Is There a Solution?
Experts in the medical field are working feverishly to come up with new ways to deal with the crisis of doctor shortages. Some suggest increasing the training of para-professionals like nurse practitioners and physicians’ assistants. Others favor an expedited medical degree for advanced students, allowing them to graduate a full year before their less-qualified counterparts. Another option is to allow more physicians who received their training in a foreign country to practice in the United States.
Although these may all be perfectly acceptable solutions to the problem in the future, they do not address the doctor shortage the country is experiencing right now. Some people who are newly eligible for Medicare are finding it difficult to find a doctor, and once they do, the wait for treatment can be over a year long. This is obviously a problem for many senior citizens who have serious health issues that must be addressed immediately, not a year from now.
Dealing With Doctor Shortages
There are certain things you as a health consumer can do to deal with the potential doctor shortages. If you are not yet eligible for Medicare but will be within a year or two, now is the time to start a dialogue with your primary doctor. Is he going to continue to accept Medicare or a Medicare Advantage plan for payment?
If not, can he refer you to someone who will? This way you can make the change to a different doctor before you enroll in Medicare. This will ensure you get the care you need as soon as you enroll rather than having to wait for an extended length of time.
The implementation of the Affordable Care Act has already placed many Americans in a precarious position when it comes to their health care options. Now it is impacting our senior citizens. Only time will tell how much worse this situation is going to get.
Wiley Long is founder and president of Medigap Advisors, and is passionate about helping people navigate the confusing waters of Medicare. He is the author of The Medicare Playbook: Designing Your Successful Health Coverage Strategy, a clear and simple explanation so you can make the most of your Medicare coverage. For more information visit www.MediGapAdvisors.com.