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What independent physicians need to know about opting out of Medicare

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Many independent physicians may consider opting out of Medicare for a variety of reasons. Some cite the burden of reporting requirements while others struggle with the low reimbursement rates. There are considerable regulations involved in Medicare and independent practices may feel overwhelmed with keeping up with the reporting, particularly those participating in the Merit-based Incentive Payment System (MIPS).

The idea of opting out of Medicare, however, causes independent physicians to pause and consider whether it will work for their practices. While they may want to continue caring for elderly patients, they also recognize that Medicare requirements may actually be detrimental to their practices. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) data shows that the number of independent physicians who have opted out of Medicare has steadily increased since 2013, when 130 physicians opted out. In 2016, CMS states that 7400 physicians opted out of Medicare for their practices.

One option for physicians who choose not to participate in Medicare and independent practices that want to remove themselves from the insurance middleman completely is to shift their operating model. Independent physicians who convert their practices to a direct care model typically do not accept any form of insurance, including Medicare. Instead, they charge a monthly membership fee which is typically adjusted according to the patient’s age.

A major drawback to opting out of Medicare is losing the practice’s elderly patients. Unless those patients are able to pay out of pocket, for example in the direct care model, they will typically search for another provider who will accept Medicare for their care.  In addition, if the decision turns out to not be a good one for the independent physician, the process of re-entering the Medicare world in a financially positive way can be lengthy.

The independent physician who is considering a Medicare opt-out and who currently cares for Medicare patients should carefully calculate whether losing those patients will work well for the long-term success of the practice. Those patients must be informed in writing of the physician’s decision. Other paperwork must be completed, including signed agreements with Medicare patients who decide to stay with the practice. Most importantly, the practice’s billing system must be transformed to ensure that no accidental Medicare billing occurs after the physician has officially opted out.