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WASHINGTON -- U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., wants Congress to address a reduction in Medicare payments for physicians, warning about a trend of cuts jeopardizing health care access and services.

Boozman, of Rogers, and Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt., led 30 Senate colleagues on a Feb. 23 letter asking Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to address the reduction, which went into effect at the start of the year.

The senators contended if lawmakers fail to act, the cut -- coupled with other changes -- will "threaten the continued ability of physicians and other healthcare providers to care for their patients."

"We as policymakers must ensure that healthcare providers who treat Medicare patients continue to have the necessary financial support to care for our nation's seniors," the senators added in their letter.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services finalized policies in November for the 2024 calendar year, including the physician fee schedule used by Medicare for reimbursing doctors for medical services. This year's plan includes a 3.37% reduction in Medicare-related payments. The agency, for 2023, approved a 2% cut.

Boozman, a former optometrist, joined Welch and their Senate colleagues in arguing the Medicare payment changes hurt practices struggling with rising practice costs, workforce shortages and lingering financial uncertainty from the coronavirus pandemic.

"It is anticipated that these cuts will be felt hardest by smaller, independent practices, like those in rural and underserved areas that continue to face significant health care access challenges," the senators said.

David Wroten, executive vice president of the Arkansas Medical Society, said the Medicare reimbursement amount is "not only not keeping up with inflation, but it's going in reverse order." He additionally noted health care practices cannot simply opt against accepting Medicare; based on data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, 22.5% of Arkansas residents are eligible for Medicare enrollment.

"Every year, we ask for something to be done about it," he told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "When one of your largest payers -- Medicare -- just does not pay a reasonable reimbursement rate and does not keep up with any kind of inflationary pressures, it puts our physicians in Arkansas in a very big bind."

The senators further emphasized the cut with additional context regarding a shrinking healthcare workforce. The federal National Center for Health Workforce Analysis projects the United States will experience an overall shortage of nearly 140,000 physicians by the end of 2036.

"A major contributing factor to this unfortunate reality is our Medicare physician payment system, which has failed to maintain physician reimbursement at levels that adequately incentivize high-quality care," the legislators said.

Bo Ryall, president and CEO of the Arkansas Hospital Association, said the Medicare reimbursement cut negatively affects efforts to recruit and retain professionals.

Speaking to the Democrat-Gazette, he coupled the physician fee schedule changes with the area wage index affecting hospitals. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services adjusts Medicare payments for facilities, with amounts dependent on labor costs across various regions.

Arkansas has one of the lowest wage index levels in the United States, stemming from lower labor costs.

"We're in constant competition with other states, other health care facilities and other communities in bringing physicians to our state or retaining the ones that go to medical school here or have residency here in Arkansas," Ryall said.

The Boozman-Welch coalition stressed the immediate importance of addressing the recent cut and creating short-term stability in the Medicare program. The senators additionally noted Congress needs to consider "long-term legislative solutions" to reform the current formula for paying physicians.

While the senators did not cite a specific legislative solution, an option could involve forthcoming legislation for averting a government shutdown. President Joe Biden and congressional leaders met Tuesday to discuss steps in overcoming a divisive Congress and averting a partial government shutdown at the end of the week.

Funding for agencies involving agriculture, energy and water development, veterans affairs, transportation and housing will expire Friday without congressional action. Support for the remaining offices will last through March 8.

Lawmakers have not released any legislative text or frameworks regarding steps to avoid a government shutdown. Despite this, congressional aides confirmed to the Democrat-Gazette on Tuesday that a cut reversal is being considered as part of the proposed deal.

"Hopefully, they'll follow through," Ryall said regarding a possible inclusion.

Wroten suggested a long-term solution involving adjustments for inflation. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services could alter the amount annually based on inflationary trends, which Wroten said would be "tremendously helpful" for attracting and retaining physicians to healthcare systems.

"No one's looking for a 20% increase in Medicare reimbursement or even a 10% increase in Medicare reimbursement," he said. "At some point, it has to be adjusted for inflation to some degree, and a modest inflationary adjustment annually would go a long way in curing this problem."

To read the story in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, click here.