updated 1/9/2006 6:46:59 AM ET 2006-01-09T11:46:59

The percentage of physicians who accept new Medicare patients has increased over the past fours years despite a slight drop in physicians’ reimbursement rates, a study shows.

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The findings suggests that doctors would not quit seeing Medicare patients if Congress had gone ahead with a proposed 4.4 cut in reimbursement rates in 2006, one of the authors said.

Paul Ginsburg, president of the Center for Studying Health System Change, a nonpartisan research organization, said that year after year of fee cuts would lead to an exodus. But, based on recent history, most doctors are willing to accept a one-time hit, he said.

“Policy makers should recognize that Medicare fees are only one factor in physician decisions to accept new patients,” he said.

Congress is expected to halt the pay cut when they return to Washington this month, in large measure because of extensive lobbying by doctors who said the cut would force many physicians to quit accepting new Medicare patients.

The American Medical Association said its own survey shows that 38 percent of physicians planned to decrease the number of new Medicare patients if the 4.4 percent cut went through.

Dr. J. Edward Hill, the association’s president, noted that the formula Congress uses to set physician payments projects further payment cuts of 26 percent over the next six years, while the cost of practicing medicine is projected to increase at least 15 percent.

“The AMA, the commission that advises Congress on Medicare, and others fear that these cuts will harm seniors’ access to care,” Hill said.

Each year, Ginsburg’s organization conducts a physicians’ survey. The survey that encompassed parts of 2000 and 2001 showed that the percentage of U.S. physicians accepting all new Medicare patients stood at 71.1 percent.

The next year, Congress cut payment rates by 5.4 percent, and subsequent increases of 1.5 percent have occurred annually since then.

The center’s latest survey puts the percentage of doctors accepting all new Medicare patients at 72.9 percent. The increase was more pronounced with primary care physicians.

Ginsburg also said stagnant reimbursement rates for Medicare patients does not mean Medicare patients are less lucrative than they were four years ago. Doctors are billing Medicare for more services per patients, such as lab tests, cardiovascular stress tests and echocardiograms.

“Minor procedures are increasing rapidly, and they tend to be more lucrative than office visits,” he said.

The Center for Studying Health System Change, located in Washington, is a wholly owned subsidiary of Mathematica Inc., an employee-owned research firm. It receives its primary funding from The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a philanthropic organization that focuses on health and health care issues.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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