You’ve been going to the same doctor for 30 years, and they know you inside and out. Literally. Intimately familiar with your medical history, your beloved physician also has a wonderful bedside manner, a beautiful office, and a friendly, efficient staff. So what happens when you sign up for Medicare only to learn your all-time favorite doctor doesn’t accept it? It turns out this is an increasingly common occurrence. But there ways to deal with it. This article outlines the basics of the program and some options to explore when your doctor doesn't accept Medicare.

What Is Medicare?

Medicare is a federal government-sponsored program. It provides medical insurance for American citizens age 65 and over. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Medicare into law on July 30, 1965. By 1966, 19 million citizens were enrolled in the program. Now, more than 50 years later, that number has mushroomed to more than 57 million, more than 18% of the U.S. population. As more baby boomers reach the age of 65, enrollment is expected to hit 64 million in 2020 and 81 million in 2030. It’s no wonder Medicare benefit payments totaled an estimated $731 billion in 2018.

If your long-time physician accepts assignment, this means they agree to accept Medicare-approved amounts for medical services. Lucky for you. All you’ll likely have to pay is the annual Medicare Part B deductible—$198 for 2020. As a Medicare patient, this is the ideal and most affordable scenario.

Doctors Say No to Medicare

Thanks to the federal program’s low reimbursement rates, stringent rules, and grueling paperwork process, many doctors are refusing to accept Medicare’s payment for services. Case in point: In 2000, nearly 80% of the Texas Medical Association’s doctors were taking new Medicare patients. By 2012, that number dropped to less than 60%.

Medicare typically pays doctors only 80% of what private health insurance pays. While a gap always existed, many physicians feel that in the past several years, Medicare reimbursements haven't kept pace with inflation—especially the costs of running a medical practice—while the rules and regulations keep getting more onerous, as do penalties for not complying with them. 

1. Stay Put and Pay the Difference

If your doctor is what’s called a nonparticipating provider, this means he or she hasn’t signed an agreement to accept assignment for all Medicare-covered services but can still choose to accept assignment for individual patients. In other words, your doctor may take Medicare patients but doesn’t agree to the program’s reimbursement rates. These nonparticipating providers can charge you up to 15% over the official Medicare reimbursement amount. 

If you choose to stick with your nonparticipating doctor, you’ll have to pay the difference between the fees and the Medicare reimbursement. Plus, you may have to cough up the entire amount of the bill during your office visit. Then, if you want to get paid back, either your doctor will submit a claim to Medicare or you may have to submit it yourself using Form CMS-1490S.

So, let’s say your doctor’s bill comes out $300, and Medicare pays $250. This means you’ll have to pay the $50 difference, plus any co-pay out of pocket. Obviously, this can add up quickly over time. However, you may be able to cover these extra expenses through a Medigap insurance policy. This coverage is also called Medigap Supplement Insurance. Provided by private insurers, it is designed to cover expenses not covered by Original Medicare.

2. Request a Discount

If your doctor is what’s called an opt-out provider, he or she may still be willing to see Medicare patients, but expects to be paid his or her full fee—not the much smaller Medicare reimbursement amount. These docs accept absolutely no Medicare reimbursement, and Medicare doesn't pay for any portion of the bills you receive from them. That means you are responsible for paying the full bill out of pocket.

Opt-out physicians are required to reveal the cost of all their services to you up front. These doctors will also have you sign a private contract saying you agree to the opt-out method.

Of course, you can always try to negotiate a discount. It's not uncommon for physicians to lower their rates for established patients. As a courtesy, they may also offer extended payment plans if you're in need of a series of expensive treatments or procedures.

3. Visit an Urgent Care Center

Urgent care centers have become a popular place for people to go for their health care needs. According to the American Association of Pediatrics, there are as many as 4,000 to 9,000 urgent care centers in the United States. These centers operate may also operate as walk-in clinics. Many provide both emergency and non-emergent services including the treatment of nonlife-threatening injuries and illnesses, as well as lab services, and routine services.

Most urgent care centers and walk-in clinics accept Medicare. Many of these clinics serve as primary care practices for some patients. So, if you just need a flu shot or come down with a relatively minor illness, you may consider going to one of these clinics. Save the doctor visits for the big stuff.

4. Ask Your Doc for a Referral

If you simply cannot afford to stick with your doctor, ask them to recommend the next best doctor in town who does accept Medicare. Your current doctor has probably already prepared for this eventuality and arranged to transfer Medicare patients to another physician's care.

5. Search via Medicare's Directory

There are still plenty of doctors who take Medicare. You can find them in Medicare’s Physician Compare directory, a comprehensive list of physicians and health care providers across the nation. Once you pinpoint a provider, call to make sure they’re still taking on new Medicare patients. After all, this can change on a dime.

Another approach is to check the best local hospitals and see if any physicians on their staff are taking Medicare patients. When you get names, research them online to learn about their backgrounds.

The Bottom Line

Thanks to plummeting reimbursement rates, ever-tightening rules, and cumbersome paperwork, many doctors are dropping Medicare like a bad habit. If you recently enrolled in Medicare, only to find that your long-standing doctor doesn’t accept it, you have a number of options.

Also, just because you are eligible for Medicare doesn't mean you have to enroll in all four parts. If you have other health insurance—say, you're still working and can remain covered by your employer's group plan—you may want to stick with that plan. Medicare Advantage Plan networks are another alternative to investigate—physicians in those HMO-like plans have agreed to accept the network's fees.

Whether you choose to stick with your cherished physician and pay the potentially exorbitant price or switch to a doctor who does accept Medicare, it’s important to carefully crunch the numbers before you make a final decision. Also, review your own medical situation and whether you need your current doctor—or someone with similar expertise—because of a specialized health issue.