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Doctors Fleeing Medicare? Not So Fast, Feds Say

How many doctors are taking new patients under Medicare and private insurance?
How many doctors are taking new patients under Medicare and private insurance?

Are doctors so fed up with Medicare's stagnant pay and bureaucratic rules that they're bailing out of the program?

Short answer: Yes, some are. Long answer: Not as many as you might have thought.

The Wall Street Journal reported recently, the number of doctors who opted out of Medicare tripled between 2009 and 2012. Tripled!

The number of doctors who split was 9,539 in 2012, compared with 3,700 who dropped out in 2009. Sounds bad for Medicare beneficiaries looking for care.

Still, there were about 685,000 doctors participating in Medicare in 2012. And the number of caregivers goes over 1 million, if you add in nurse practitioners and other nondoctors.

And some analysts at the Department of Health and Human Services just ran the numbers on doctors and whether or not they're taking new patients. The findings are reassuring.

They found that the proportion of docs taking new patients has held pretty steady for Medicare in recent years — rising about 3 percentage points, actually, to 90.7 percent in 2012 from 87.9 percent in 2005. In recent years, the proportion of doctors taking on new Medicare patients was higher than it was for those with private insurance. (See the chart.)

The report's authors conclude:

[B]ased on multiple data sources, Medicare beneficiaries' access to care appears to be excellent: it has been stable over the past five years and is comparable to or better than access reported by privately insured individuals.

Now, there are some problems, for sure. About 14 percent of Medicare recipients looking for a new primary care doctor said it was a "big problem," according to a March report to Congress. But people, age 50-64, with private insurance were in the same boat — 15 percent of them said the same thing.

No consolation for the folks at the American Medical Association, who point to financial pressure on doctors who take part in Medicare. "While Medicare physician payment rates have remained flat since 2001, practice costs have increased by more than 20 percent due to inflation, leaving physicians with a huge gap between what Medicare pays and what it costs to care for seniors," AMA President Dr. Ardis Hoven told Forbes.

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Scott Hensley edits stories about health, biomedical research and pharmaceuticals for NPR's Science desk. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he has led the desk's reporting on the development of vaccines against the coronavirus.