Failure to Address Debt Ceiling Threatens Health Care Access, Says AAFP

October 11, 2013 05:45 pm News Staff

The AAFP is urging Congress to restore the full function of the federal government and lift the national debt ceiling. In an Oct. 11 letter to congressional leaders(2 page PDF), AAFP Board Chair Jeff Cain, M.D., of Denver, said the partial shutdown of the federal government will have "deep and lasting effects on the health of our nation."

[Debt Ceiling Ahead - Highway Sign]

"Whether assuring the safety of the nation's food supply, tracking influenza and other illnesses, initiating important clinical trials of life-saving treatments, or promptly processing new applications for Medicare coverage, vital functions of the federal government are delayed or suspended because of this failure to pass appropriations for federal agencies," Cain said. "These and other functions of the federal government have serious consequences, and the inability of the government to provide these and other needed health-related services affects lives long after the current impasse is resolved."

The United States reached its borrowing limit nearly five months ago. Since then, the U.S Treasury has taken measures to ensure that the federal government can meet its financial obligations -- such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security payments -- without adding to the national debt. According to Treasury estimates, those measures will be exhausted by Oct. 17.

The nation appears to be headed into a third consecutive week with much of the federal government shut down, and no agreement is in place to address the debt ceiling.

In his letter to congressional leaders, Cain highlighted Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew's Oct. 10 testimony to the Senate Finance Committee. Lew told the committee that failing to raise the debt ceiling would cause physicians who treat Medicare patients to operate with "significant uncertainty about when they would be paid" for their services. He also said health care professionals would face "real liquidity challenges" if the debt ceiling issue is not addressed.

The stability of Medicare already is in question because the sustainable growth rate formula (SGR) calls for Medicare physician payments to be cut by nearly 25 percent on Jan. 1.

In his letter, Cain said a stable economy and fully functioning government are essential to meeting the nation's obligations to patients who depend on Medicare or Medicaid.

"The AAFP believes that part of meeting these obligations requires effective action to prevent dramatic reductions in … payments to those physicians who provide care to Medicare and Medicaid patients," Cain said. "The SGR is symbolic of the long-term budget ramifications created by continuous short-term policy interventions. This is why we continue to urge Congress to repeal the SGR and create a payment system that supports primary care and provides all physicians with the stability and appropriate reimbursement that the current system undermines.

"We urge Congress to take the appropriate steps to meet the promises made to stabilize our nation's economy, restore the federal government to full capacity, and ensure access to physicians' services by ending the decade-old downward spiral of the SGR."

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