HHS study: Most doctors still accepting Medicare patients

August 23, 2013

Despite complaints about Medicare's shortcomings, the vast majority of office-based physicians continue to accept new patients covered by Medicare. Similarly, most Medicare beneficiaries are satisfied with their access to medical care.

Despite doctors’ frequent complaints about Medicare’s regulatory burden and the ever-present possibility of significant cuts to reimbursement rates, the number of physicians accepting Medicare patients has actually grown slightly in recent years.

 A new U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study finds that 90.7% of all office-based physicians were accepting new Medicare patients in 2012, compared with 87.9% in 2005. These percentages are very similar to those of physicians accepting new privately-insured patients, and in some cases are slightly higher.

Among primary care physicians, the 2012 acceptance rate for new Medicare patients was 87.4%, slightly lower than the national average. Overall about 1 million providers, including 650,000 physicians, were participating in Medicare in 2011, according to the study.

The study also finds that both the number of providers participating in and billing Medicare grew between 2007 and 2011. This finding allays concerns about reports that greater numbers of physicians have been opting out of Medicare in recent years, the study’s authors note.

Joe Baker, president of the nonprofit Medicare Rights Center, told USA Today that “Overall, the clients we deal with have good access to physicians. We find the physicians who don’t take Medicare don’t take other insurance either, but it’s not a problem we see regularly.”

Because the study ended in 2012, it does not include discussion of the impact of cuts in Medicare reimbursements that took place at the start of 2013 as part of the budget sequestration process. However, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said preliminary data for 2013 shows no evidence of fewer physicians accepting Medicare patients.

Medicare reimbursements have also been under constant threat in recent years from the Sustainable Growth Rate formula that, if implemented, could result in cuts of as much as 30%. Congress has continually shied away from imposing reductions of that magnitude, fearing that the cuts would cause many beneficiaries to lose access to medical care.

Medicare beneficiaries’ satisfaction with the program remains high, the study found. Seventy-seven percent of those surveyed in 2012 said they had never waited longer than they wanted to for an appointment during the past year, compared with 76% in 2008. Among those with private insurance, the numbers were 72% and 69%, respectively. Among those seeking treatment for an illness or injury, 84% said they never had to wait longer than they wanted, the same percentage as in 2008.