The government's release yesterday of Medicare payment data has predictably raised an uproar among the public. The conflagration is also being fanned by a media that only sees all the zeroes in the reimbursements but don't care to dig a little deeper into the numbers to understand where all the money is going. Hint: it's not into the doctors' pockets.
While the news concentrates on the witch hunt for doctors who are supposedly raking in millions of dollars from the taxpayers, the CMS database is actually a lot more useful to illustrate how LITTLE doctors make from taking care of our elderly. We should be receiving accolades for how little money we get for treating our nation's grandmothers and grandfathers instead getting smeared with innuendo about our integrity.
If you go to the CMS website, you can download the data that comprise the payment amounts to doctors. The downloads are aggregated by alphabetical order of the physicians' names. Even then each Excel spreadsheet is several megabytes in size. You'll have to be very patient if you have a slow internet connection and an old computer. I loaded just a couple of databases, including the one with my name in it, just to see what kind of information the government is releasing about me to prying eyes. What it tells me is that we are all suckers for accepting such a pittance for Medicare reimbursements.
I only looked at payments related to anesthetic procedures. The horror story is true for all physicians but anesthesiologists already know we receive far less from Medicare as a percentage of private insurance compensation compared to other doctors. This makes the pain of taking Medicare patients particularly acute for anesthesiologists. Since anesthesiologists usually work in a hospital setting, we are all obligated to take these patients whether it makes financial sense or not.
The following is a list of procedures performed and billed by anesthesiologists that I randomly pulled from the spreadsheets to illustrate how little money they made from the program. The first column is the average amount they charged for the procedure while the second column is the average they received from Medicare.
As you can see, anesthesiologists barely make back ten cents on the dollar for interventions that have life and death consequences. Only $99 for an emergency intubation? That is somebody's life on the line. If we failed and the patient dies, or worse suffers anoxic brain injury, that $99 wouldn't even cover the lawyer's lunch bill. A brachial plexus block for only $48? It take at least twelve years of education after high school and thousands of hours of training to be able to confidently and successfully place a block. For all that hard work we don't get paid enough to take a family out to see a movie? If there is nerve injury or a catastrophic complication, that $48 suddenly doesn't seem worth the risks.
The worse news for anesthesiologists though, if it could possibly get worse, is that our reimbursements from Medicare aren't all that different from CRNA's who bill for the same procedures. Again here is just a quick random sampling of the spreadsheet. The amounts that are reimbursed are determined by complicated formulas that is beyond my scope to explain here. This tiny sample does not imply an overall trend, which will require analysis of thousands of numbers for which I'm not getting paid enough to do, as in zero.
Notice how CRNA's make nearly as much money as anesthesiologists, give or take a few dollars? Data like this along with the government's lovefest with nurse anesthetists could make medical students start having second thoughts about going into anesthesiology.
If you think these number look bad, wait until millions of patients start arriving at the hospital doorsteps with their new Obamacare insurance plans. Those reimburse at Medicaid rates, which is even lower than Medicare if that is even possible. Doctors need to show their patients and the media these numbers, not hide from them as if we have something to be ashamed of. If the amount of money we get paid for performing life saving procedures isn't enough to even get a plumber to come to your house to look at your stopped toilet, there is something wrong with the system. And Congress's and the AMA's only solution is to prolong the pain.