Column: Congress must protect frontline medical providers


Commentary by Dr. John McGoff

At the height of the pandemic, you could see the signs across Indiana – “thank you to the heroes.” Doctors, nurses and clinicians across the country have selflessly risked their lives to treat patients suffering from this deadly virus. We heard stories about doctors and nurses sleeping in cars or garages to keep their families safe, not complaining but doing the job they signed up for to serve their patients and neighbors. We owe these heroes our thanks and complete support.

But policymakers in Washington, D.C. are currently planning to cut the pay of critical frontline providers. Beginning in January, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) will lower the reimbursement rate for patients covered by Medicare. CMS already reimburses providers below what it costs to provide treatment. Any further reductions will be disastrous for providers struggling to cover the cost of treating patients.

COVID-19 wasn’t just a healthcare crisis, it was a financial crisis for hospitals and doctors as well. Back in March, state and local governments across the country mandated that hospitals and clinics cancel or postpone elective treatments. This was the right move at the time, designed to free critical resources to treat COVID patients and limit contact between patients and medical professionals.

But many doctors, clinics and hospitals depend on revenue generated from patients seeking elective treatments. In March and April, patient volumes plummeted. Even when taking COVID-19 cases into account, emergency department saw columns decreases of 50 percent. Some specialties, including anesthesia, saw decreases closer to 70 percent.

With fewer patients coming in the door, physicians and facilities across the country were forced to furlough or layoff workers. In total, the healthcare industry has lost 800,000 jobs since February. Most providers have yet to fully recover financially from COVID-19. CMS’ decision to reduce reimbursement rates will put further strain on healthcare providers struggling in this unprecedented pandemic.

Doctors and hospitals in rural and underserved communities are especially at risk. Since 2010, more than 130 rural hospitals and clinics have closed because of declining patient volumes and lower re-imbursement for care. Hundreds of hospitals and clinics in rural and underserved communities remain at high risk of closing. Cutting Medicare reimbursement rates could be the final nail in the coffin for communities across Indiana.

Major organizations representing doctors and hospitals across America have opposed CMS’ misguided decision to cut resources for frontline physicians. American Medical Association President Dr. Susan Bailey warned that, “physicians are already experiencing substantial economic hardships due to COVID-19, so these pay cuts could not come at a worse time.”

Back in July, the American Medical Association joined with more than 100 other groups to send a letter urging Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to forgo the pay cuts. “Payment reductions of this magnitude would be a major problem at any time, but to impose cuts of this magnitude during or immediately after the COVID-19 pandemic—including steep cuts to many of the specialties that have been on the front lines in efforts to treat patients in places with widespread infection—is unconscionable,” the letter stated.

Earlier this spring, Congress worked across the aisle to pass the bipartisan CARES Act, which provided much needed aid to doctors, hospitals and heroic frontline providers. Congress, including our Senator Todd Young, once again has the power to support our healthcare heroes and postpone this disastrous rate cut.

We did the right thing in Indiana to follow the advice of medical professionals during the COVID pandemic. Frontline providers in most specialties are warning Congress that this pay cut will have disastrous consequences and limit critical care in the middle of a deadly pandemic. Congress should listen to the doctor’s advice.

Dr. John McGoff is former President of the Indiana State Medical Association, a retired Brigadier General in the Air National Guard, and served as the Marion County Coroner for two terms. To contact him, email [email protected].