“How to Lie with Statistics” was a handy little guide that used to be required reading for journalism students and economics majors not so long ago.  This book came to mind recently as we’ve followed the ongoing debate about the rate of doctors accepting or turning away Medicare patients.    Columbia Journalism Review‘s, Trudy Lieberman, tackled the issue:

“The (Wall Street) Journal had reported that last year, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, 9,539 physicians opted out of Medicare, up from 3,700 in 2009. It noted an American Academy of Family Physicians survey that found the proportion of family physicians accepting new Medicare patients was 81 percent last year, down from 83 percent in 2010. Furthermore, the Journal reported, reimbursement rates weren’t the only issue: some doctors were dropping out of the system because Medicare is too intrusive in their practices. Mary Jane Minkin, a gynecologist at the Yale School of Medicine, quit when she saw patients’ gynecological records displayed on electronic records which made them available to other providers they consulted. ‘There’s no reason the dermatologist has to know about my patients’ libido issues,’ she told the paper.

Reasonably interesting stuff.  But also somewhat incomplete, as Diamond (Dan Diamond of California Healthline) writes: ‘What the Journal didn’t report is that, per CMS, the number of physicians who agreed to accept Medicare patients continues to grow year-over-year, from 705,568 in 2012 to 735,041 in 2013. And other providers aren’t turning down Medicare, either. The number of nurse practitioners participating in the program has only gone up, Jan Towers of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners told California Healthline.’

USA Today also reports, “More Doctors accepting Medicare patients”.

“The number of physicians accepting new Medicare patients rose by one-third between 2007 and 2011 and is now higher than the number of physicians accepting new private insurance patients, according to a Department of Health and Human Services report obtained by USA TODAY.

In 2007, about 925,000 doctors billed Medicare for their services. In 2011, that number had risen to 1.25 million, according to the report by the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation.

‘I think the report comes at a time when people are asking questions about Medicare,’ said Jonathan Blum, principal deputy administrator for the Center for Medicare Services. ‘It provides a more complete picture of how physicians choose to participate in the Medicare system.’

“Ninety percent of office-based physicians accept new Medicare patients, a rate similar to those who take privately insured patients, researchers found. The rate of Medicare patients who say they can find a new doctor in a timely manner is similar to those who are privately insured, the report said.

Medpac found 28% of beneficiaries had a tough time finding a doctor who accepted Medicare last year, but Blum said that’s also similar to privately insured rates. “

Threatening that doctors will leave Medicare is an annual rallying cry from physicians forced to fight against hugely unacceptable rate decreases mandated by a flawed formula that Congress simply must fix.  For seniors, keeping their doctors is vitally important.  It’s unfortunate that they’ve become the pawns in the battle to fix the physicians payment formula – something we agree must happen.