Commentary: Medicare is something we should all worry about

Several years ago grandparents Dawnia and Ray Clements got a letter from their family doctor. It said the clinic to which they had gone for years would no longer take their Medicare. So they called another doctor they had seen before. That doctor, who wasn't taking new Medicare patients, agreed to take them on. But then a letter came from that clinic too. And the Clementses found themselves without a doctor.

Want to make the political hot air about health care real? Try being over 65 and doctor-less in Alaska.

America has a Medicare problem, but Alaska's problem is even worse. Medicare covers the disabled and people over 65. In Alaska, the program reimburses doctors about 63 cents on the dollar compared with private insurance, according to one recent study. Even if patients want to and can afford it, the rules don't allow them to make up the difference. The cost of providing medical care here is higher than Outside. So for doctors, who say their average reimbursement is really often less than half the cost of care, taking on older patients means eating the majority of the cost of their care. Doctors are opting out. As of June, only about a dozen primary care doctors in Anchorage would take new Medicare patients, and only two of those were in regular private practice. Now there are fewer.

What does all that mean for patients? Three years ago, for Dawnia Clements, it meant burning through the phone book.

"I made 63 phone calls out of the yellow pages and each time I was told, no, they would take no new Medicare patients," she said.

"How can they call themselves primary care if they don't take grandmas?"

If she really needed care, she was told, she should go to the emergency room. Then she got what she thought was the flu. She didn't think it was serious enough for an emergency visit.

"I thought it would just get better," she said, "but it didn't."

Back in the days when she had a doctor, she would have called for advice. But that wasn't an option. One morning she woke up and couldn't breathe. She ended up in the emergency room, and then in the office of a lung specialist. (Specialists are reimbursed by Medicare at a higher rate, so in Anchorage they are more likely to take Medicare patients.) She had pneumonia. In the end, Medicare paid far more for her care than the cost of a primary care visit. After that, a friend of a friend of Clements' daughter, who was a primary care doctor, agreed to take her on as a favor.

To read the complete column, visit www.adn.com.