The end-of-year holiday season is upon us. I can always tell it is because of the displays in the stores, the songs on my radio, and the phone calls I receive asking about the status of next year's Medicare physician fee schedule.
Each year about this time, I start getting phone calls from anxious physicians and their staff members asking if the Medicare fees really are going down in January or whether Congress will intervene as it has in the past. This year is no different. Under current law, the Medicare conversion factor (which converts relative value units (RVUs) to Medicare payment allowances) is scheduled to decrease by approximately 21 percent for services provided on or after Jan. 1, 2010. That decrease will be partially offset by RVU increases announced for office visits and other evaluation and management services that family physicians frequently perform, but Medicare fees will still decline significantly if the conversion factor goes down.
For the past several years, Congress has intervened at the last minute (or sometimes after the last minute) to either freeze the conversion factor or increase it slightly (although the increase is always less than the rate of inflation, so physicians still lose). The expectation and hope is that Congress will do so again this time around. For instance, as I write this, the U.S. House of Representatives' Rules Committee has produced a Defense appropriations bill that includes, among other things, a provision to extend the current Medicare physician payment rates through the end of February, with the expectation that this extension will give Congress enough time to enact health reform legislation that includes a longer-term fix to Medicare's Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) and physician fee schedule issue. It's probably appropriate that the extension is attached to a Defense appropriations bill, since physicians would likely be up in arms if Medicare rates actually fell 21 percent.
In the meantime, the fact remains that Medicare fees will drop in January unless Congress intervenes, which it has not completely done yet. So, what's a physician to do? Well, the good folks at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services have given you until Jan. 31, 2010 to decide. That's when the current period for changing your Medicare participation status for 2010 will end. For more information, I would encourage you to visit the Medicare participation options web page on the American Academy of Family Physicians' web site.
And with that, I'll return to listening to the radio, where I can almost hear the Congressional Tabernacle Choir singing:
God rest ye merry gentlefolk; let nothing you dismay.
We plan to patch the SGR, and not to cut your pay.
Then do it all again next year, lest you should go astray.
So our tidings of comfort to the annoyed, to the annoyed.
So our tidings of comfort to the annoyed!
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