The CMS saw a sharp decrease in the number of providers opting out of Medicare in 2017, after several years where thousands indicated that they did not want to participate in the program.
Physicians and practitioners who do not wish to enroll in the Medicare program may file an “opt-out” affidavit that will prevent the provider and beneficiaries seeing them from submitting bills to the CMS.
For years, the CMS had few providers opting out of Medicare, with the number first hitting triple digits in 2010, with 130. But those numbers jumped to over 1,600 opt-out requests going into effect in 2013, more than doubling to over 3,500 in 2015, and spiking at 7,400 in 2016. Opt-outs dropped to just 3,732 in 2017, according to data released by the CMS Monday.
The agency did not elaborate on why it may have seen such a change.
One theory is that MACRA ended the need for providers to renew opt-out affidavits every two years; now opt-outs can be indefinite, and providers must ask to rejoin the program.
“Figures from 2015 and 2016 may represent the first wave of physicians opting out and lower 2017 data may reflect the fact that physicians no longer need to file affidavits to renew,” said Anders Gilberg, senior vice president of government affairs for the Medical Group Management Association.
Doctors have shown less and less interest in Medicare participation as the program’s reimbursement has not kept up with the cost of providing care and regulations have increased, according to Donna Kinney, director of research and data analysis at the Texas Medical Association.
“Between price controls and the administrative burden, there is real concern about Medicare,” Kinney said.
Medicare remains a vital part of many doctor practices. But some clinicians, particularly in wealthy metropolitan areas, feel they can opt out of the program because they can fill their practice with patients who have commercial insurance or are willing to pay out-of-pocket for care, according to Dr. Charles Rothberg, president of the Medical Society of the State of New York.
“Patients in these areas are not as price-sensitive as they may be in other places,” Rothberg said.
New York City, for instance, had a 76% acceptance rate for Medicare patients in 2017 compared to a 100% acceptance rate in Fargo, N.D., according to Merritt Hawkins, a physician search firm.
Some groups like the American Medical Association have noted that by and large, doctors are staying in Medicare and accepting patients. The CMS estimates that just over 1.3 million providers now bill Medicare.
However, in a time when overall wait times are growing longer, even a few thousand doctors choosing to opt out of Medicare could mean restricted access to care for some individuals, especially in rural areas, Rothberg said.
Even if doctors chose to not opt out of Medicare, there are increasing reports that some are capping the number of Medicare patients they’re seeing, Kinney said.
The Texas Medical Association found in a 2016 survey that 35% of its members said they would not accept new Medicare patients, up from 22% in 2000.
The drop in opt-outs may also stem from the nation’s aging population. As many as 10,000 Americans become eligible for Medicare every day, thus decreasing the number of patients in other forms of coverage.
“As the percentage of Medicare patients goes up it makes it harder to walk away from that program,” said Dr. Jaan Sidorov, CEO of the Care Centered Collaborative, a consulting firm founded by the Pennsylvania Medical Society to help independent physicians with regulatory matters.
Another reason may be that physicians are increasingly employed versus being in private practice, and their contracts may prohibit them from opting out of Medicare, according to Dr. Jane Orient, an internist and executive director of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, a far-right provider group.