Declines in Physician Acceptance of Medicare and Private Coverage

By Tara F. Bishop, MD, MPH; Alex D. Federman, MD, MPH; Salomeh Keyhani, MD, MPH
Archives of Internal Medicine, June 27, 2011

A number of articles in the lay and medical press report a decline in the number of physicians who accept patients with Medicare; however, to our knowledge, recent trends in acceptance of different types of insurance have not been examined. Using data from a national survey of physicians, we examined trends in physician acceptance of different types of insurance and self-pay patients.


The percentage of physicians accepting new patients did not vary significantly between 2005 and 2008, ranging from 94.2% to 95.3%. Physician acceptance of new Medicare patients dropped from 95.5% in 2005 to 92.9% in 2008 (P = .01). Physicians in private practice were largely responsible for the declining acceptance of Medicare patients as determined in stratified analyses (95.5% in 2005 vs 93.0% in 2008; P = .01) (eTable).

There was a more pronounced decline in physician acceptance of patients with private noncapitated insurance (93.3% in 2005 vs 87.8% in 2008; P < .001). A smaller percentage of adult primary care physicians accepted private noncapitated patients over the study period (97.3% in 2005 vs 89.9% in 2008; P < .001).

Rates of acceptance of new Medicaid and private capitated patients were lower than Medicare and private noncapitated insurance, but also showed a decline over the study period. Acceptance of self-paying patients was more than 96% in all years and did not change significantly over the study period.

While reports in the press highlight physicians’ dissatisfaction with Medicare, we found only a small decline in physician acceptance of Medicare patients between 2005 and 2008. In contrast, the decline in physician acceptance of noncapitated privately insured patients was more pronounced. Physicians continued to accept patients who were self-paying.

Although physician reimbursement under Medicare is often cited as the reason why physicians turn away Medicare patients, our findings that more than 90% of physicians continue to accept Medicare patients despite marginal increases in reimbursement suggest that anecdotal reports may be overstating access problems.

The observed decline in acceptance of private noncapitated insurance was unexpected and could be related to reimbursement but also to administrative burden. Acceptance rates of capitated insurance was lower and may reflect lower reimbursement in this model. Finally, the low and declining acceptance of new Medicaid patients is not surprising given the program’s historically poor reimbursement rate. Low rates of Medicaid acceptance may threaten access to care for the estimated 16 million Americans who will receive Medicaid coverage as a result of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

eTable. Percentage of physicians accepting new patients by insurance type, practice type, and specialty, 2005-2008:

The good news in this report is that the often stated claim that physicians are dumping Medicare patients in favor of privately insured patients is not really true, at least as of 2008. Although there has been a small decline in the numbers of physicians accepting Medicare, well over 90 percent still do. Contrary to claims otherwise, the decline in the acceptance of privately insured patients was even greater.

Examining the breakdown in the eTable (link above) reveals some other interesting though not unexpected findings. With the exception of community health centers, close to one-third of physicians do not accept new Medicaid patients. Even more do not accept privately insured capitated patients (paid a flat amount per month per patient rather than fee for service). Over half of HMOs do not accept self-pay patients, though acceptance rates for these patients is very high in private practices and community health centers.

Although cash paying patients had the best access, this report does not cover the potentially catastrophic consequences of being uninsured or inadequately insured (e.g, high deductibles). Having adequate insurance is essential. The new lower actuarial value standards of private insurance make them a less desirable model for expanding coverage. Also the chronic underfunding of Medicaid makes it a poor choice.

Although Medicare remains popular and is widely accepted, it does need to be improved. Once we do that then it would be the ideal program to cover everyone. Acceptance rates would be virtually 100 percent.