Commentary: Alaska's Medicare woes could be fixed by reform

In discussing health care reform, Sen. Lisa Murkowski repeatedly says Medicare, the universal government insurance coverage for the elderly and disabled, is broken. In Alaska, it is. Or at least one part of it is. Alaska seniors have trouble finding a doctor who will take new Medicare patients. (The parts of Medicare that cover hospitalization and prescription drugs seem to work much better.)

The problem is that Medicare pays Alaska doctors far less than the going rate for their services. Making matters worse, Medicare effectively bans the patient or secondary insurance from contributing anything toward the doctor's charges. Medicare dictates a low fee — period, regardless of the patient's other coverage.

Sen. Murkowski says she has pushed amendments to fix Alaska's Medicare problems as Congress works on comprehensive health care reform. So far, she reports, she's had no luck. Perhaps that's because there are relatively few places in the country where Medicare's doctor payments are so far below the going rate. In fact, Medicare is generally quite popular in most parts of the country.

Nonetheless, those spearheading the health care reform effort would do well to heed the complaints about Medicare from Alaska. Medicare's record here is discrediting the entire effort to expand health coverage to all. Medicare offers universal coverage to the elderly, but Alaska's experience here shows that if you botch an important detail, the universal coverage that's available on paper evaporates in practice.

To read the complete editorial, visit The Anchorage Daily News.