Medicare premiums estimated to rise $7.20 next year

Wednesday, March 26th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Medicare beneficiaries could see their monthly premiums in 2004 rise by 12.3 percent, or $86.40 over the full year, in what would be the largest increase in recent years to the health insurance program for the elderly.

Medicare's chief actuary is estimating the monthly premium will go up by $7.20, from its $58.70 to $65.90. Richard Foster said Wednesday that spending has grown quickly, citing increases in costs for doctors' services, wheelchairs and other items.

He said officials set the 2004 premium later this year after having more time to review spending for this year. The premium is calculated by a complex formula that looks in part at spending for the previous year.

The monthly premium was $54 in 2002, $50 in 2001 and $45.50 the two previous years.

The Medicare agency is also predicting cuts for doctors in the coming year, despite recent passage of a law to use $54 billion over 10 years for doctor payments.

The agency predicts that in January, doctors will see a 4.2 percent cut to the payments they receive from Medicare.

Doctors had lobbied for legislation, which Congress passed in February, to ease expected cuts.

Physicians said action was needed because the formula that determines their Medicare payments relies on the state of the economy, which is now struggling. Many doctors have warned they may be unable to afford to take Medicare patients unless the government corrects the problem.

The legislation stopped a 4.4 percent cut from taking effect this month and gave the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid the authority to fix the formula.

Dr. Yank Coble, president of the American Medical Association, said the latest numbers are ``proof positive that Medicare's physician payment formula is fatally flawed and must be replaced.''

``Patients and physicians lose under a formula that cuts Medicare payments when the overall economy slows and more health care services are provided to seniors,'' Coble said. ``Under these conditions, the only way physicians can avoid payment cuts is by limiting care to our nation's elderly and disabled.''